Why it's the NHL's golden age of iron men, and what's next

Heading into the Panthers' game against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, Keith Yandle had played in 708 consecutive games, the seventh-longest streak in NHL history. Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle doesn't remember the last time he missed a game. Neither does the Maple Leafs' Patrick Marleau, who laughed as he struggled to recall what it was that last sidelined him.

It has been a while for both, as neither player has missed a game since spring of 2009. Both skaters had played in more than 700 consecutive games with the Maple Leafs and Panthers set to square off on Wednesday. Their streaks both rank among the 10 longest in NHL history. Yandle's 708 consecutive games (heading into Wednesday) is the seventh longest, and Marleau's 701 is the eighth longest.

They're not alone. While challenging the long-established records for most consecutive games played has become a thing of the past in other leagues, such as the NBA and MLB, this is the golden age for iron men in the NHL.

Four of the 10 longest streaks in NHL history were active at the start of the 2017-18 season. Anaheim Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano's streak ended at 830 games earlier this season -- because of suspension -- and Pittsburgh Penguins winger Phil Kessel is fast approaching 700 consecutive games, too. Meanwhile Montreal Canadiens defenseman Karl Alzner comes in at 12th all time, with a streak that hit 600 consecutive games earlier this season.

What's the reason behind this prevalence of long streaks -- and what comes next?

The game has changed

These streaks are an outgrowth of the fact that more players in recent years have played all 82 games in a season. Last season, 10.1 percent of NHL players appeared in all of their teams' games. That's only the third time since 1980 in which that number has topped 10 percent (in a non-strike-shortened season) and all three have happened since 2006-07.

The percentage of NHL players playing in all of their teams' games has been trending up over the past decade or so, and the percentage is even higher if you exclude goaltenders, who have never played all 82. By contrast, the NBA has seen a noticeable downturn in the percentage of players playing all 82 games, with less than 5 percent reaching that mark each of the past two seasons.

Stringing together those long streaks and playing in every game each season undoubtedly requires many things going right, including good health, supreme physical fitness and a bit of luck.

"I've been pretty fortunate, pretty lucky," Marleau said. "You play through a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, and sicknesses."

Panthers coach Bob Boughner, who worked with Marleau as an assistant in San Jose for two seasons, called the 38-year-old Marleau "a freak of nature."

"He still has those fast-twitch fibers that allow him to skate like he's 18," Boughner said.

But changes in style of play in the NHL during the past decade, as well as the age-old norms of hockey culture, have been helping to keep players on the ice for more games in recent years.

"I think the league has changed a lot, obviously," Boughner said. "It used to be a tough league, especially on defensemen. I think nowadays the game's faster, it's probably not as physical, but back then there was a lot of games where you're going to war every night and it was really a physical game."

Training and recovery have changed, too

Boughner also said the off-ice training regimen has changed drastically since his career, from 1995 to 2006. He said players didn't have tools like cryogenic chambers to help in recovery when he was in the league.

"Some of these guys have four or five guys working on them during the day. They all have their supplement shakes and their protein shakes, they eat better. So, I think generally, hockey players take better care of themselves than they used to, for sure," he said.

Another major change has been a less grueling practice schedule.

"The coaching staff do a really good job nowadays of giving guys days off and giving guys rest when they need it," Yandle said. "When I first started, it seemed like we were practicing every day and being on the ice for hours. That can kind of wear on your body, but I think nowadays it's less and less morning skates, and practices are shorter, and I think it's getting to the point of the season where you're not practicing as much, and just doing a lot of video and getting ready for games."

Boughner said he "doesn't believe in morning skates."

"For me, rest is probably your biggest weapon during the season now because of the scheduling," the Panthers coach said.

Marleau said he noticed this change in the attitude toward practice about seven or eight years ago.

"The season is pretty taxing, but the coaches and the trainers, they're on top of whether or not to practice or have an optional [practice] or things like that," he said. "As opposed to when I first came in the league, you were skating every day no matter what, basically, so I think that's been a huge change. It's helped players stay fresher and stay healthier.

"There's such a fine line between winning and losing," Marleau said. "So being a fresher team than the other team usually gives you an advantage, so I think coaches and coaching staffs have realized that. They use the rest as a weapon against other teams now I think."

But practice is where rest, and using rest as a weapon, stops.

Will the NHL ever adopt NBA-style rest regimens?

Despite complaints from some fans, players in other leagues such as the NBA and MLB have gradually been taking more games off amid the long grind of their respective seasons. But that's not the case in the NHL. It's perhaps the best explanation for why more players today are stringing together historically long streaks and playing all 82 games: More rest outside of games, better training regimens and a less physical league are keeping players healthier.

Unless they get suspended (like Cogliano), skaters who are healthy enough to play rarely, if ever, take a game off.

"I don't think hockey players are really bred like that [to take games off]," Yandle said. "I think guys wanna play, and you wanna be out there. The game is the best part. You know, you definitely take your option [to skip an optional practice], but when it comes to game time, you always wanna be out there."

"I think hockey breeds a different animal, different kind of athlete as well," Boughner said. "I think we stress so much about being team-first ... it's about the team and not the individual. I don't know if that will ever break, that old adage for hockey players."

Goaltenders don't play every game for a variety of reasons, but Marleau said he can't imagine a day when it would be acceptable for skaters to take a game off, though he admitted he could be wrong.

"It just seems like the culture in hockey is if you're there, you play. If you're willing and ready to go, you lace them up," he said.

Boughner said there's so much parity around the league that coaches can't really afford to give players games off, especially late in the season. But he acknowledged he wouldn't be against resting a healthy skater during a game if he felt he could gain a long-term advantage. Perhaps Boughner or another open-minded young coach might shift the prevailing wisdom.

However, until that day comes and that attitude becomes prevalent around the league, Yandle and Marleau as well as Kessel and Alzner -- and every other skater around the league for that matter -- will continue extending their streaks, barring injury or suspension.

Might any of these players end up surpassing Doug Jarvis' record of 964 consecutive games?

Besides Marleau, who's nearing the end of his career, the other three figure to have a pretty good shot. Although he didn't admit to striving for it, Yandle, 31, said he hoped his streak could go on indefinitely.

"My job is to go out there and play, give it my all," he said. "And it's something I take pride in doing."