Keith Yandle: the NHL ironman closing in on 1,000 consecutive games

·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Consistency often gets overlooked. We can be as oblivious to the employee who comes to work on time and performs tasks without complaint as we are to a member of a theater’s backstage crew.

Yet Tuesday night, when he takes the ice in Elmont, New York against the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle will get his moment in the spotlight.

Yandle will break a 36-year-old record by playing in his 965th consecutive NHL game. Yandle will pass Doug Jarvis, whose streak included all 964 games of a 13-year career with three teams.

“That’s an amazing accomplishment,” Flyers interim coach Mike Yeo said. “For a record like this, a lot goes into it: the commitment to play through injuries, through pain, through sickness, and to make sure that you bring the consistency night after night.”

Yandle offered a more subdued response.

“Obviously, anytime you can have a record, as I would imagine, it’s pretty cool,” he said. “But for me, it’s just about being available and being ready to go and play every night.”

Yandle’s response reflects his upbringing. His father, Bud, drove delivery trucks for FedEx for 30 years, making round trips in the middle of the night. His mother, Patti, worked as a FedEx dispatcher despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.

“Definitely my parents had a huge, huge influence on me,” said Yandle, 35. “You know, just seeing hard work, seeing my parents going to work every day. My brother and sister are the same way. You don’t have to look too far for some great influences.”

Yandle displayed that diligence early. As a teenager in suburban Boston, he found motivation in trying to surpass another defenseman his age, Dan McGoff, a local star who attracted attention from scouts.

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“He was probably the best defenseman at the ‘86 year level,” Yandle said, referring to his age group’s birth year. “He was the kind of a guy that I wanted to be as good as or better than, and he set the bar high.”

But the turning point in Yandle’s young career came at Cushing Academy, a college prep school about 65 miles northwest of Boston. While there, he met Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, who spent most of his career with the Boston Bruins. Bourque – the NHL’s all-time leader in points by a defenseman – was one of Cushing’s assistant coaches.

Yandle, a defenseman also known for offense, found the perfect mentor.

“The most important person was definitely Ray Bourque,” Yandle said. “Having a guy that is arguably the best defenseman ever to be able to help you out in high school when you’re learning the game and falling in love with it was pretty cool.”

Bourque’s lessons reaped dividends. As a junior in 2003-04, Yandle had 14 goals and 48 assists in 37 games. The next season, he made the All-New England first team after accumulating 14 goals and 40 assists in 34 games. In June 2005, the then-Phoenix Coyotes chose Yandle in the fourth round of that year’s draft.

“I was aware of his playmaking ability, his ability to create offense with his vision and the way he moves on the power play,” said Yeo, who coached against Yandle before joining the Flyers. “He’s got a real unique ability to see the ice and to put people in a position to create offense.”

Yandle used those skills to dominate his lone season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, one of three in the Canadian Hockey League, the highest level of Canadian amateur hockey. In 66 games with New Brunswick’s Moncton Wildcats in 2005-06, Yandle led CHL defensemen with 25 goals and 59 assists, both team records.

With Yandle’s help, Moncton amassed 52 wins and 107 points, two more team records, won the QMJHL championship and reached the finals of the Memorial Cup, the CHL championship. Yandle not only received awards as the QMJHL’s best defenseman and its defensive player of the year. The CHL also made him its defensive player of the year and a member of its First All-Star Team.

Yandle began the 2006-07 season with the Coyotes before being sent to the minor leagues but returned to stay in December 2007. On 26 March 2009, Yandle began his streak by playing in a 3-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers.

Before being traded to the New York Rangers in March 2015, Yandle twice led the Coyotes in points, played in two All-Star Games and helped them reach the 2012 Western Conference finals. Nearly seven years after the trade, Yandle still ranks second in franchise records for consecutive games played, 448.

But in June 2016, the Rangers sent the impending free agent to the Florida Panthers, who signed him to a seven-year contract worth $44.5m. Nearly eight weeks into his first season with his new club, an injury threatened Yandle’s streak.

Yandle suffered an unspecified lower-body injury on 5 December against Boston and left the game in the first period. Tom Lowe, the Panthers’ coach and general manager at the time, said Yandle would be out “for a while.” Eric Hornick, a statistician on the Islanders’ broadcasts, tweeted more definitively: “Yandle streak ends tomorrow.”

Yet on 6 December, Yandle played nearly 24 minutes during a 3-2 overtime loss in Philadelphia. That total represented the second-largest amount of ice time for any player on either team, not counting goaltenders.

Then on 23 November 2019, Yandle lost nine teeth after a puck hit him in the mouth during the first period of a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. But Yandle not only returned for the third period. He underwent emergency dental surgery the following morning and played against the Buffalo Sabres that night, compiling a game-high 23 minutes, 38 seconds on the ice.

“He has never missed a game, and I have never played with a player that has never missed a game, or at least hasn’t for this long,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said.

Not only has Yandle’s durability made an impression.

“Every day he comes to the rink, and every day is a good day,” Yeo said. “Obviously, our games are filled with stress, pressure, lots of emotion. So to be able to come to the rink and for things to be fun, to be able to look ahead, as opposed to not looking in the past if you had a bad day the day before, I think that’s beneficial to everybody.”

Yandle’s former teammates in Florida noticed.

“He is one of the funniest guys I have played with,” forward Jonathan Huberdeau added. “He always made us laugh in the locker room. He’s good to be around, loves everyone and it is great to have him as a teammate and as a friend. He will do anything for you.”

Yet beyond the humor lies the secret to Yandle’s streak.

“I think he is such a pro, the way he approaches games,” Huberdeau said. “He was a great leader with us, always prepared to work. He keeps that locker room ready before games.”

With Yandle, leadership involved teaching.

“In all situations, you can go to him and learn something new,” Ekblad said. “The impact of knowledge and his wisdom on and off the ice is endless.”

Yandle played in his third All-Star Game in 2019 but with the pandemic limiting revenue and forcing a tighter salary cap, the Panthers bought out the final two years of his contract in July, making him a free agent. The defenseman then signed a one-year contract for $900,000 with Philadelphia.

Once Yandle breaks the record, he might not have it for long if he misses any action. The Coyotes’ Phil Kessel trails Yandle by 23 games. But regardless of how long Yandle owns the record, Yeo believes his legacy extends beyond numbers.

“You’ll never find anybody that didn’t say he’s one of the best teammates ever,” Yeo said. “He is a very, very highly respected person around the league, within our group. In a game where you have to battle, you have to compete, there’s competition within your group, there’s competition against you, that’s not an easy thing to bring day after day, but he’s able to do that.

“Obviously, that’s something to be very proud of.”