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No rest for the weary in 'stubborn' NHL

Niklas Hjalmarsson attempts to block a shot during a game in Pittsburgh on Jan. 5. (AP Photo)

In the moments following a game, win or lose, the Blackhawks dressing room can be a sorry sight. Niklas Hjalmarsson is often gingerly limping around after throwing himself in front of another barrage of pucks. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are slumped against the back of their locker stalls in exhaustion. Everywhere you look, there are welts and bruises and cuts and beaten men.

Yet it’s always the same thing: On to the next game. There’s no rest for the weary, not in the NHL.

“You can’t be fresh for 82 games; that’s impossible,” Hjalmarsson said. “But when you don’t feel as fresh, you still have to find a way to play solid and don’t make big mistakes and stuff like that. It’s all about being consistent.”

Last summer, only one Major League Baseball player played all 162 games, Baltimore’s Manny Machado. Only 28 NBA players played all 82 games, with 53 playing at least 80. In the NHL, 85 players played all 82 games. A whopping 164 of them played at least 80.

Stephen Curry has sat out the entire fourth quarter in 14 of the Golden State Warriors’ games this season. The San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Atlanta Hawks have sat their top players for entire games to preserve them for the postseason. NFL teams regularly bench starters in blowouts.

Meanwhile, hockey stubbornly — perhaps foolishly — refuses to cut its players the same slack, treating every game like a do-or-die situation.

“I think it’s just the culture of the sport,” Seabrook said. “Guys don’t want to take games off, guys don’t want to miss time. You sort of get in a routine, and you just play.”

And nobody has played more games than the fortunate few on the Hawks who have won multiple Stanley Cups. Since the start of the lockout-shortened 2013 season three years ago this month, Hjalmarsson has played a league-high 327 games, including 65 playoff games. Seabrook is one back at 326. Jonathan Toews has played 322, Andrew Shaw 318, Keith 313, Marian Hossa 306, and Patrick Kane 295. Before he was injured, Marcus Kruger had played the most in the NHL in that span, with 307 games.

It’s a staggering total, especially given the brutal nature of hockey, and the physical toll it takes.

The Hawks are coming off a stretch of 14 games in 24 days, and appeared to have hit the wall in their last three or four games heading into the desperately needed five-day All-Star break. Joel Quenneville is liberal with days off, and the Hawks have practiced just once since Christmas. But the only gameday reprieve any Hawks regular got was in the third period of Tuesday night’s miserable 5-0 loss at Carolina, when a sick Toews sat out the third period.

“I guess it’s just something that’s never really been a part of the game,” Hjalmarsson said. “As a hockey player, you just play. You play until you get hurt, or you can’t play, or the coaches won’t play you. Hockey players are very stubborn. They want to play every single game, and you almost feel guilty if you’re not in the lineup. I don’t even watch the game when I’m hurt or something and not in the lineup. I feel bad not being out there, helping my teammates out.”

Marian Hossa has played a whopping 139 playoff games since the spring of 2008, reaching five Stanley Cup finals and a Western Conference final. He’s 37 years old with a recent history of back problems. Yet he played all 82 games last season, including 14 back-to-back sets.

“I never thought about it, about getting days off,” Hossa said. “If you’re healthy, you play.”

On top of all the games the Hawks have played compared with other teams, they’ve had far less time off to recuperate. While less successful teams get four months off in the offseason to recover before the new season approaches, the Hawks have gotten about two months or less in each of the past summers. By the time the celebration winds down, the offseason training ramps up. It’s the price of success, and a price the Hawks, of course, are more than willing to pay.

But year after year, 100-game season after 100-game season, the miles start adding up. The excuses never do, though. And to a man, the Hawks all bristled at the mere thought of Quenneville telling a player to take a night off. It’s just not how things are done.

“I don’t think I’d like it,” Seabrook said. “I might give you a different answer when I wake up in the morning after a long flight, and we don’t fall asleep until 4 in the morning. But that’s all part of it. It’s just sort of the culture of how we do things. That’s hockey.”


Twitter: @marklazerus