In training camp there are sometimes more teenagers than veterans, and with his 40th birthday approaching, O’Donnell is more than double the age of many of the players in Hawks’ camp. While the prospects fight to get noticed, O’Donnell is simply getting himself ready for the rigors of an 82-game season with his eighth team since being drafted 123rd overall in 1991.
“For a lot of these guys this a chance to make a first impression,” O’Donnell said after Monday’s practice. “For myself, I’m getting ready for that first game in October. It’s hard to come out of the gate firing right away. It’s a little different now.”
O’Donnell hasn’t heard many of the “grandfather” jokes just yet. He’s still getting to know the guys, including fresh-faced 20-year-old Nick Leddy. Leddy and O’Donnell have been paired together much of the first three days of camp.
“He has so much experience,” Leddy said. “It helps out so much being on the bench with him and playing with him. If I make a little mistake he can say something and help me out along the lines of the little things you pick up over the years in the NHL.”
It isn’t often there is a 20-year age gap between defensive partners.
“Hard to do that,” coach Joel Quennville said when it was pointed out to him. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that.”
When O’Donnell turns 40 on Oct. 13, he’ll become the first to don a Hawks sweater at that age since Tony Esposito in 1984. In the entire league last season there were only five players -- Mark Recchi (Boston), Dwayne Roloson (Tampa Bay), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit), Mike Modano (Detroit) and Teemu Selanne (Anaheim) -- who played at 40 or older.
“I don’t think you see a big difference in my game now than at 28,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing but I’m proud that my career has been steady and accountable. I’m proud of that part.”
The "steady" O’Donnell was brought in to be stabilizing force on the blue line and a leader in the locker room.
“I think the biggest thing is the poise,” Duncan Keith said. “He’s seen everything before, probably several times, so he’s not going to get worked up over little things. That calming influence is key.”
Not wanting to ruffle any feathers, O’Donnell is taking his time before assuming a leadership role. He says he doesn’t want to “impose” until he feels more comfortable.
“I talk to guys one-on-one more than making a speech in front of the whole group,” he said. “I like to read the guys a little bit before I give my two cents. They raised the Cup a couple years ago. They know what to do.”
One thing many Hawks didn’t know was that O’Donnell was nearing a milestone birthday. They see him as just another guy in the room.
“I didn’t know that,” Viktor Stalberg said of O’Donnell’s age. “He’s in pretty good shape. He does the little things really well. He’s not the fastest guy out there but he’s positionally sound. And he’s greatest in the locker room. I hope I could have a career like that.”
But no matter how respected he is, as his 40th birthday approaches, O’Donnell is bound to hear about it more and more.
“Someone asked me what my first year pro was and I said ’91 then they asked Nick what year he was born and he said ’91. I think they were setting me up a little bit,” O’Donnell said, laughing.
After 1,173 regular-season games and another 104 in the playoffs, O’Donnell is as durable as he’s ever been. He’s played in no less than 78 games each year since 2003-2004.
“It’s amazing to think of where your body would be after all that,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “It doesn’t seem like any of that has fazed him over the years. One of those underrated things that comes in is he can see the ice and make plays, too.”
According to O’Donnell, there’s really no secret to the longevity -- other than a year-in-and-year-out commitment.
“In my mid-to-late 20s my diet got better,” he explained. “It’s more of a 12-month thing now as opposed to taking that one month off and getting going again. It’s hard to get it going again. You really never let yourself get out of shape.”
O’Donnell may not be called upon to play heavy minutes (and may not even keep his streak of 78 or more games played intact) but he’ll be an influence nonetheless. And even with all the Hawks prospects running around the ice during scrimmages, O’Donnell managed to sneak in a rare tally on Monday. He did that just once last season.
“Those don’t happen very often,” he joked. “They’re always nice. It’s like a linebacker picking up a fumble and running it in for a touchdown. It doesn’t happen often but it still feels good.”
Especially at the tender age of 39.