SUN Hockey Pool

Iron will is key to Sarich's streak

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:38 AM ET

Narrowing it down to one critical element in becoming the NHL's active iron man is impossible.

Theories, however, are easy to come by.

When Vancouver Canucks centre Brendan Morrison finally succumbed to a nagging wrist injury this week, Calgary Flames defenceman Cory Sarich inherited the title.

Tonight's game against the St. Louis Blues will be his 422nd consecutive game.

Sarich ignored Robyn Regehr and Anders Eriksson after a morning skate in Tampa a few days ago, as the pair pleaded to be let in on the secret. Willing to share his thoughts, though, former Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis suggested Sarich's Saskatchewan roots have something to do with it.

"It definitely shows the resilience of a player. He's the kind of guy that needs a lot to keep him out of the lineup. He's old-school that way," said St. Louis, who witnessed Sarich's run of 388 consecutive contests with the Lightning. "It probably has something to do with his upbringing -- farming and whatnot," St. Louis said. "Those guys usually have a tough mentality."

The streak began Nov. 27, 2001 after a shoulder injury and a conditioning assignment put him back to square one.

"I'd played quite a few games -- 50, 60, 70 games in a row -- before that," recalled Sarich. "I hit Brad Isbister in Long Island, and I think I missed a few games with an AC (acromioclavicular) joint injury."

Sarich didn't give his fellow Flames blueliners an answer yesterday because he doesn't have one.

"I don't know -- a lot of it's really out of my control," Sarich said. "There's been a few bumps and bruises, but, other than that, I've been pretty fortunate."

Crediting good fortune isn't entirely accurate. Many professionals play through injuries, but not all of them would have suffered through the pain Sarich felt when he broke a big toe in the streak's early days.

"I can't even remember right now even if it's my left or my right. I broke it in Buffalo, and we had to go play (the New York Islanders) the next night. Every time I missed a check and hit my toe cap on the boards, or someone bumped against it, it felt like I was re-breaking it," said Sarich, who felt at times as if he was going to faint on the ice. "I was the cause of a couple of two-on-ones because I banged my toe and completely took myself out of the play. Back-to-back games. No day or two in between to ice. Throw it in the boot the next night and go.

"That thing nagged me for probably a couple months. Just not feeling right. Digits take forever to heal, so it was probably a year before you kind of forget about it.

"Every time you bend your toe you get that feeling like your skin's gonna bust."

Sounds like a painful sacrifice to make for a streak that may never find its way into the record books. Doug Jarvis is the all-time iron man with a remarkable run of 964 games between 1975 and 1987.

"It's unbelievable," said Sarich of Jarvis' feat. "Maybe they just tapped him one day and told him, 'Hey, you've got 900-and-some games going.' Very impressive.

"I didn't think I'd ever get to this point. You just go about your business, and I guess it just happens. It's pretty much out of your control.

Not that kids pretending to be their heroes while playing street hockey would ever notice.

"You could ask kids who Doug Jarvis is and what record he has, and they wouldn't have a clue," said Sarich. "Even as an athlete, until you start to bank up a few games that stuff is ... pretty much unknown to you. I don't think kids want to be the NHL iron man."

Despite growing up a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan, Sarich wasn't even aware of the former Habs star's phenomenal record.

Sarich himself thought he was about as far away from the world's best league as a 14-year-old could get while toiling as one of the lesser defencemen on his small-town Saskatchewan minor hockey team.

"We were joined up with another town just so we could have enough kids to have a team. For some reason we had a ton of defencemen that year -- like six or seven," said Sarich. "I hadn't really grown a lot that year. I was still kind of a little bit of a runt. That was a tough year in hockey. That's the one year I thought, 'Well geez, I'm not very good.'

"But then it came together after that."

Sarich wasn't drafted into the Western Hockey League, earning a tryout with the Saskatoon Blades as a 15-year-old that he believes only came from the efforts of the father of his childhood friend Chad Allen, who was a third-round draft choice of the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.

He had a "really good camp" and was placed on the team's list of 50 protected players.

Shooting skyward during a major growth spurt that year, the now 6-ft.-3, 206-pounder had his first thoughts of a real future in hockey.

"As a 16-year-old," said Sarich. "I thought, 'Hey, I'm playing the sport, we'll see how far it goes."

The question has become, 'How far will his remarkable streak last?'


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