LOS ANGELES – When Wild players empty into the lobby of a hotel, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning after arriving from the previous stop on a road trip, the group starts to separate itself by the elevators.
Veterans get on first while the younger players wait.
“A nice perk,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said.
But being able to get settled ahead of other teammates isn’t the only advantage of seniority in the NHL.
Even though aging is often described negatively in sports, like a defect that suddenly develops after years of smooth operating, there are plenty of upsides to maturing.
And the Wild, as one of the oldest teams in the league with eight players in their 30s and an average age of 28.5, is well-aware of them.
“I love everything about my life right now,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
While getting older can slow down players and make them more prone to injuries, the amount of time they’ve been on the ice is also a strength.
From those seasons, NHLers can pick up tips and tools to stay in shape and be prepared for the rigors of competition.
“You’re not going to feel the same at 35 that you did at 25,” said 35-year-old center Eric Staal. “But there’s other things you can be smart about to make sure you’re at your best.”
Overall, those who have been in the NHL for years have a much larger database to pull from — lessons that can help them navigate the physical and mental sides of hockey.
“The game slows down for you,” Suter, 34, said. “Because of that experience, you don’t get so emotional. If things are good, you’re not too high. If things are bad, you’re not too low.”
This knowledge can be especially important in a complex position like goalie where time is one of the best teachers.
“It’s like a computer,” said 33-year-old Dubnyk. “The more plays you see, the more situations you see, it all kind of registers in your head. And as that play comes down the ice, you know how the play’s developing and the odds of what’s going to happen and that’s important.
“That’s why it’s tough for young goalies to come in and be really consistent because it’s just not there. But it’s important that they come in and play and get those opportunities.”
Another benefit of logging the minutes is the confidence it produces, a self-assuredness that can arise from trial and error.
“Even with a normal job, you gain experience with your job and it makes you more comfortable,” defenseman Brad Hunt, 31, said. “No matter what you do, the experiences are the things you’ve learned. And of course, making mistakes, it’s good because you learn from mistakes that you make and it makes you better in the long run.”
Unlike some of their younger peers, the veterans also typically have a spouse and children to share the journey with — bonds that have enriched the work and put it in perspective.
“That becomes the best part about it,” Dubnyk said. “Just seeing the kids in warmup and getting to see them after games, it’s fun when they’re babies but now as they get older [my son] Nate knows what’s going on. He knows who I am on the ice, and he knows when he gets to come to the rink and it’s fun.”
Leaving the game at the rink is a mind-set some players have adopted, using family time to unplug and recharge. But hockey can follow them home, like in 35-year-old winger Zach Parise’s case.
“My son [Jax] has started to give me a hard time for not scoring,” Parise said. “… The other day he asked me to play mini sticks and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He’s like, ‘Because you need to practice so you can start scoring in games.’ Thanks, man.”
Although most veterans are established and have honed an identity, they’re still trying to grow to keep their jobs. But that’s also a source of pride, the fact that they continue to suit up for duty when others have retired.
“Still every day you try to learn and get better as a person and a player,” captain Mikko Koivu, 36, said.
In hockey years, they’re approaching senior-citizen status. But in life, there’s more adulthood ahead of them than behind them — a bizarre two-track feel that presents the possibility to take on a brand-new chapter once they finally do stop playing.
That can make the present and the future more appealing than the past.
“Would I want to go back?” Hunt said. “Sure, because it means I have more years to play. But I wouldn’t change anything in the world to be where I am.”