Heart gets Ryan Smyth to 1,000th game

It was 1988 in Banff, Alberta, and Glen Sather set his eyes on a 12-year-old hockey player named Ryan Smyth.

"You could see this kid was going to be a very good player right then and there," Sather told ESPN.com this week.

Sather, the GM in Edmonton at the time, drafted Smyth in the first round of the 1994 NHL entry draft, sixth overall. It's a pick he's proud of.

"Ryan is full of heart and determination," the current New York Rangers GM said. "He's had a great career. And he's a great guy."

And he's playing his 1,000 NHL regular-season game Saturday night. The rink rat from Banff has come a long way.

"It's pretty sweet," Smyth said this week. "It's an honor to play one game in the National Hockey League, let alone 1,000. Everybody dreams about playing in the NHL and winning the Stanley Cup, and another dream of mine was playing 1,000 games."

Full disclaimer: I gave Smyth his "Captain Canada" nickname at the 2002 world hockey championships in Sweden, a moniker that honored a player who played in seven straight IIHF world championships for Canada from 1999 to 2005, the last six of which I covered for The Canadian Press. In the process, I developed a terrific relationship with Smyth.

Now 34, Smyth hasn't changed. He's still a rink rat, the last one off the ice in practice and warm-ups. The Los Angeles Kings winger just can't get enough of it.

"Working hard in practice, the attention to detail over time I think has paid off in getting to 1,000 games," Smyth said. "I still feel good. I'm excited to play the game."

Playing 1,000 NHL games isn't that unique on its own, but when you play the game the way Smyth does, it takes on a different meaning. He's made a living in the crease for 15 NHL seasons, with every bit of his body black and blue at some point.

"I believe I try and go out and earn everything I've got," Smyth said. "Sometimes you have to pay a price and get your nose dirty to get rewarded. I think if I look back, probably 94 percent of my goals are in the goal crease. The puck is going to go there, so you pay the price. Your body gets sore at times, but there's a will within me to not be denied. That's really helped me over the course of my career."

"I think he's the best guy in the front of the net in the league," Sather said.

Smyth scored 91 goals in his final 122 games in junior hockey with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, but he realized near the end of that junior career that he had to change his game to make it in the NHL.

"In junior, I don't want to say I was more of a perimeter player but I got more of my chances on the outside," Smyth said. "I learned my last year of junior that you've got to get closer to the net and get grittier to get better."

He's made his living in front of the goalie ever since.

Now as he enters the final chapter of his hockey career, he's missing one glaring accomplishment: the Stanley Cup. He's got an Olympic gold medal (2002) and a pair of men's world hockey gold medals ('03 and '04), but the big shiny trophy in the NHL has eluded him.

He's got one of the best shots of his career now with a rising Kings team that has high expectations.

"As a player, you always want an opportunity. We're sure giving ourselves an opportunity," Smyth said. "I know it's really early in the season, but there's an opportunity, there's the desire to get better with each and every month of the season. I see this team and this organization doing that and hopefully it can pay off in the long run."

In the meantime, the old man enjoys being around these kids in L.A.

"I enjoy being on a young team that inspires me on a daily basis," Smyth said.

I think the inspiration is the other way around, Ryan. Congrats on 1,000.