NHLers always up for kicks

BILL LANKHOF

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

It is less than 90 minutes to gametime and, in the tunnel outside the visiting dressing room at the Air Canada Centre, the Vancouver Canucks are playing.

They are the most unlikely looking of millionaires. Kids, really. Which many actually are.

No sticks. No pucks. No skates. Just a soccer ball and Henrik Sedin laughs as it flies wildly off his foot toward a security guard. It is the game of Markus Naslund's childhood. It is the pre-game fad of choice these days for NHL teams.

Think hacky-sack, with a ball. Prior to every game a dozen or so players invariably form a circle passing the ball from head to toes. They are not David Beckham.

But in the baddest, fastest, meanest game on the face of God's little green earth it is a respite before the bedlam. Mess this up and there isn't a reporter to ask why, a couple thousand fans derisively yelling: R-A-A-A-Ycroft, and so far as anyone knows nobody has taken a header and concussed himself.

Less than five minutes into the game last night Rory Fitzpatrick and Boyd Devereux will collide at the Vancouver net with a splat that sounds like a watermelon on concrete. Neither blink. NHL players have among the shortest careers professional sports -- about five years,

Matt Stajan breaks in from the wing, trips Canucks goalie over Roberto Luongo's pad and as he's flying through the air takes a body shot from Brendan Morrison that leaves him dazed. Ten seconds later, he's up. And, on this night, it isn't even a particularly physical outing. Sure the money is phenomenal but the chance to collect is phenomenally short.

6:30 p.m. For all the adulation, the tenuousness of the profession is perfectly depicted when Travis Green steps on to home ice as a Maple Leaf for the first time since 2003. He is 36 years old -- ancient by NHL standards. "The older you get the more you realize how precious the things we have are," Green said, after an otherwise dismal night to be a Maple Leaf. "This is the first time I've ever been the oldest guy on a team and you start to realize how quickly it all passes. When you're young sometimes you forget to enjoy what you've got."

The ravages that this sport takes of its participants is clearly evident. Last time Green was here Mats Sundin had hair. Well, sort of. Nik Antropov still had some of his own body parts. There are seven players still with the Leafs who were there the last time Green donned blue and white. "Things," he said, "change so quickly." Some have gone elsewhere in the NHL. Most vanished with concussions, clavicle separations, fractured collarbones and torn labrums, tendons and groins. "Once you hit 30 you see the end of the road," Green said, "when you're younger there are days you might not feel like practising. You get older you start to treasure every day."

When Green was last here Tie Domi still was chasing pucks instead of Belinda. Shayne Corson and Anders Eriksson hadn't imploded and Alyn McCauley was to be the star of the future.

But 16 from the 2003 roster are never to be seen again outside alumni night or a miracles of medical science study: Alex Mogilny, Jyrki Lumme, Jonas Hoglund, Aki Berg, Robert Reichel, Karl Pilar. Hockey players subject themselves to more bodily harm than any pro athlete. Lose teeth? You take the guy to the dentist at 3 a.m. for a root canal, and he's back on the ice the next night.

The ice isn't the only place where the going is rough. Add to that additional weight and cardio workouts per week -- and the shortest off-season in pro sports -- and well, it's nice to know there are moments when it can still be about kids, a ball, and pure fun. "A lot of people see the money." Green said, "but a lot of us are still basically small town guys who love just to play the game."


Photos