I am obligated to tell the truth, of course, so I must tell you that, when I was a kid growing up in Toronto, Tim Horton was my favourite player.
He was, irrefutably, my idol. He played for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the pre-Bobby Orr era, when defencemen didn't score much, but, man, could he shoot the puck from the blueline. He was clearly stronger than the others. And could he ever clear opponents away from the front of the Leafs' net.
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When he died in a car crash, I was devastated. I didn't think it could be possible. I figured he was immortal.
The man lives on in my memory, regardless. In fact, just about every time I go to a Tim Hortons coffee shop in Canada—and I visit one virtually every day for coffee and raisin-bran muffins — I think of the red-haired, muscleman who wore No. 7 for the Leafs.
The coffee shops that he started are enjoying unprecedented success, something to do with a breakfast sandwich they introduced not all that long ago, and in no way could the man ever have envisioned what a business giant his coffee shops would become.
Tim Horton is a household name in Canada, even if the majority of Canadians aren't even aware that he was an NHL hero.
But he will always be my hero, and I mention that in this column because, Thursday night, one of his hockey records was surpassed.
I figured this record would never die, either.
But aplayer named Karlis Skrastins has played in 487 consecutive NHL games, meaning that Horton's ironman recordfor a defenceman — recorded from Feb. 11, 1961 to Feb. 4, 1968 — is gone.
Skrastins appeared in his 487th game in a row when his team, the Colorado Avalanche, met the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night
If you haven't heard of Skrastins, you're not alone.
He's an inconspicuous kind of player. Doesn't score much. But the 32-year-old Latvian native hasn't been scratched from his lineup with the Nashville Predators and the Avalanche in seven years — and that's remarkable in the contemporary world of professional sports.
On Wednesday of this week, Skrastins answered questions from the media in a conference call. And what impressed me most about his answers was that, yes, he was very aware of Tim Horton.
And he loves Tim Hortons coffee.
"Every time I'm in Canada, it's kind of my favorite coffee shop where to go," Skrastins said. "Every time when I'm there, you know, I try to get some coffee because I love coffee. And in America I drink Starbucks, but when I'm in Canada, I always go to Tim Horton's to get some coffee from there."
Is Skrastins aware of Horton's legacy?
"I heard about him a lot," he said. "I kind of promised myself I want to find out more about him and I'm going to read something about him. Right now, I just know he was a good defenceman and he played for Toronto Maple Leafs and he played until he was 44 years old. So it's amazing, you know, so I heard he was really tough and good defenceman. I would love to know about him more."
Everyone should. He was the best — in my mind, anyway.
• Here are questions and answers from the Skrastins conference call:
Q: What's the secret to your durability?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: I don't have a big secret. Maybe just hard work and a lot of effort. It's just — I'm just getting ready and try to keep my focus on every game, every shift and I'm not counting the games, just getting ready for one game at a time and just keep going and keep going.
Q: On top of the consecutive NHL games you've played in, since that streak began, you've played in four world championships for Latvia and two Olympics for Latvia. That's a lot of games when you add the international hockey, too. Is it tough some years to go overseas? And I know how proud you guys are, as Latvians, I've seen it firsthand at the Worlds, but are there years where you felt like your body might need a break?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: You know, it's almost like every year, it's the same feeling. But when it's coming closer to the World Championships, you know, it's hard to say no. Because I know for Latvia, the national team means a lot. Hockey, it's the No. 1 sport in Latvia. We don't have a lot of NHL hockey players who can help our team. So if I have a chance, and I feel good and I am healthy, always I am glad and excited to play for the national team.
Q: As a follow-up, you've only missed one NHL game, right before the streak, you missed that one game against St. Louis with a shoulder injury. Looking back, do you wish you had tried to play through it?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: I don't know, now I'm kind of like yeah, I was thinking about that. Maybe I wouldn't have gone so far.
I've had a lot of injuries during the streak, too. Almost every year I have something. But you know, if I can be sure I can play my game which I usually play when I'm healthy, I'm going to play in the game, because pain is kind of part of our game. But if I can get through the pain and I feel all right, I'm going to play.
But I think, yeah, the injury with the shoulder, it was too serious for me. I remember I was skating the morning skate and I didn't feel good. That's why I didn't play that game.
Q: I wanted to know, what was the worst injury you ever played through the streak that gave you the most problems?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: It was one year, the year before the lockout, it was the end of season, too, I think last ten or 15 games. I had a broken wrist. My team doctors and trainers, they did a big, big job. They made a nice wrist guard for me and I played one game, I played the second game, and I was feeling good. Of course there was a lot of pain but it didn't bother me to play my game. If I would be a forward, I don't know if I would be able to play that game with that wrist injury.
But the type of game I play, be good defensively, I could get through that, and in the end, like, two, three, five games, it was really tough for me, but pain is kind of part of our job.
Q: What made you want to play through it, because you could have easily taken a seat.
KARLIS SKRASTINS: But hockey, it's my job. It's what I like to do and I like to be in the game and I like to play. I was feeling, you know, one practice, second practice, I was feeling not really good. But I was feeling all right and I could do all of the things I had to do on the ice, so I keep playing. In the future if I can play and if I can help the team, I'm going to be ready for those games.
Q: You also blocked a lot of shots, and you're putting yourself in harm's way all the time, does it hurt every single time you try to block a shot?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Not every time. Not like I'm going to try to block every shot. But if I can see I can help the goalie and I can stop the puck, I will block the shot.
I have a lot of protection, I have a lot of good gear on my body. So it's not like every shot is getting through and I feel pain. It's my part, my style of the game and I'm used to it already. After the games, I have a lot of ice packs on my body, but it's what I do.
Q: You're breaking the record of Tim Horton, who is held in the highest possible regard by everybody in hockey, and I called a couple of people that played with Tim Horton and I asked them how he was able to get through it, and I talked to your coach Joel Quenneville, and the answer is the same: High threshold of pain, just you can go out there when you're hurting.
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Yeah, maybe yeah. But those pains — if it's pain, I'm not going to jeopardize my health if it's something really, really serious or big. But if I feel I can keep playing or keep practicing, I'm going to do this. I love what I do, and like I'm saying, pain is part of our hockey game and you have to get through those pains.
Q: Joel said you were not a guy that likes a lot of attention, you don't try to go for attention, and here you are getting a lot of attention, being compared to one of the greatest players in the history of the NHL. You have to have a feeling of satisfaction when you hear your name being compared to a guy like Tim Horton.
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Of course, it's an exciting moment for me. A lot of people are talking about that. It means a lot to me. I'm not a guy who is scoring a lot of goals or getting a lot of points. So the streak, record, you know, it's really special for me. Yesterday's game and tomorrow's game is going to be one of those games that I'm going to remember for all of my life. You know, I'm kind of proud of myself.
Q: I just wanted to ask you, is this something that you always had, this durability, going back to when you were a younger player or is it something that's evolved when you became a pro?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: You mean about the streak?
Q: No, the durability, the ability to play with pain.
KARLIS SKRASTINS: No, it's kind of — I don't remember if I miss some games when I played for juniors. Yeah, I played like three years in Finland (TPS Turku) before I came to America. There, too, I didn't have a lot of injuries; I don't know, maybe I don't feel the pain like other people. I don't know, it's how I'm saying, it's my job and it's what I like to do. If I can keep going, I just want to, because everything I've got, it's hard work and it's a lot of effort. I don't like to do nothing, you know, during a season. So for me, it's better even if I have some small injury or stuff like that, I just keep working.
Q: Your nickname apparently is Scratch, but you've never been scratched from the lineup.
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Yeah, it sounds funny but yeah. It's what guys are calling me, Scratch.
Q: Have you ever played despite the doctor's or trainer's advice that you take some time off?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Yeah, I said I had one year before the lockout, I had a broken wrist and the doctors were asking, if you are ready, you can play; if not, you don't have to play. I said I practiced once, I practiced two, and I played one game. I was feeling all right and of course I had like — I was feeling the pain in my wrist, but the doctors, they did a big job. They made a nice wrist guard for me and I was getting through those pains, so I would keep playing.
Q: As you get ready to break the record, what's the biggest injury hurting you right now?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: Right now I'm feeling pretty well. Almost every game I get some small bruises, but it's part of my game and I kind of just keep going. Right now I'm feeling really good and I hope it's going to stay the same way until the end of the season.
Q: Everybody I talk to about just the characteristics and what it takes to keep a streak like this, they mention off-season conditioning and just hard work off the ice. What do you do in the off-season to kind of keep yourself in shape and make sure your body is ready to handle the grind?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: I have had the same program that I do for the last, I don't know, five, six years. It is just doing the work — I'm not like a crazy work like everybody thinks. But I have the program that I do regularly from June till the end of August when I'm coming back to training camp. I don't do nothing special, you know, everything any guy has to do during the summer break, ride the bike and do some workout in the gym, stuff like that. You know, nothing really unusual or nothing really special.
Q: I may be stretching this too far, but I'm wondering, some of the best stories I've heard over the years from Arturs Irbe who would talk about those years where the Latvians were fighting for their independence from the Soviets and the stories that Archie would tell about the tanks rolling into Riga, and I'm just wondering if those experiences for yourself and growing up, in Soviet-occupied territory and fighting for your nation, do you think there's any link of that to the mental toughness you seem to have about playing the game?
KARLIS SKRASTINS: I don't know if it's come from that. I think that the work ethic, it comes more from my parents, from my dad and from my mom. And of course, maybe it comes from those times when, you know, if you wanted to get something from life you had to work hard. Like my mom, she was working in two jobs. It's what I learn from my dad and from my mom just to be hard worker. It's how I got my goals and how I got my dreams, if I want to, you know, to get something, you have to work really hard. It's what I tried to do.
• The Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to obtain an enforcer type, theoretically for the protection of their superstar, Sidney Crosby.
The Pens' main target: Georges Laraque, who is very much on the trading block with the Phoenix Coyotes.
• The NHL's rookie of the year, by the way, will be Crosby's teammate with the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin.
That's a no-brainer.
Malkin is 14th in the NHL in scoring, with 59 points, entering Thursday night.
• Veterans likely to be dealt before this month's trading deadline:
Peter Forsberg, Ed Belfour, Josef Stumpel, Martin Gelinas and Gary Roberts.