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Five hundred games Slater

Jets centre admits impending NHL milestone 'a huge deal'

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Jim Slater practises Tuesday in preparation for his 490th career game, tonight vs. Vancouver. The Jets' forward says he's always had to earn his keep on the ice.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Jim Slater practises Tuesday in preparation for his 490th career game, tonight vs. Vancouver. The Jets' forward says he's always had to earn his keep on the ice. Photo Store

It's a number that looks infinitesimal to legends such as Gordie Howe, Mark Messier or even the Winnipeg Jets' resident greybeard, Olli Jokinen.

After all, when a guy's career starts crossing into different decades and is no longer measured just by years, the 500-games-played mark tends to be just a small chapter in a long journey.

But for Jets centre Jim Slater -- a bottom-six forward his whole career who has battled some serious injuries while always looking over his shoulder at the new recruits in the system trying to take his spot on the roster -- the 500-games mark represents a big accomplishment.

Big, as in absolutely, positively monumental.

Slater played in his 489th career game in Monday night's 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche, inching him closer to the milestone. It's a topic he discussed, almost reluctantly at first, prior to the contest.

"I've still got a little ways to go here so I don't want to jinx myself," said Slater with a grin. "But it's big. It's one of those milestones as a hockey player that is pretty cool to have.

"It's a huge deal for me. I mean, I always thought I could play in this league for a long time and to get the opportunity to play nine years so far -- and I've missed a lot of games with injury -- and play 500 games is still an accomplishment."

Selected in the first round (30th overall) in the 2002 NHL Draft, the 31-year-old played his full four years at Michigan State before turning pro with the Atlanta Thrashers. He is currently the longest-tenured player with the franchise, just ahead of Bryan Little and Toby Enstrom.

Two stretches when the game was temporarily taken away from him by injury -- in 2010-11 after a concussion and this season because of a sports hernia -- have given Slater a true sense of how short-lived a career can be.

And, how to soak up all the moments you are able to live it.

"I've always appreciated the game," said Slater. "I was never the most highly touted player so I had to work my way up, earn my way. So I've always looked at playing here as a privilege.

"I look back to my parents and the sacrifices they made for me to help get me to this level... that's who I want to repay the most. I look at every year as a privilege. I've been blessed to play with a lot of great players and be on some pretty good teams. It's cool.

"I especially appreciate it when you look at all the young guys in this locker-room. They keep you young," Slater added. "But it also helps you not take it for granted because, as I know, you could have an injury that could take it away from you. There's a lot of things that could take the game away from you. There's always young guys coming up trying to take your spot."

MILESTONE CORNER: Jets centre Bryan Little picked up two assists in Monday's loss, giving him 52 points (20G, 32A) this season, a new career high. Little had 51 points (30G, 21A) in 2008-09.

STINGY PK: The Jets killed off six Avalanche power plays on Monday, improving its fifth-best efficiency to 84.3 per cent. The Jets have the NHL's best road PK, working at 88.8 per cent.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2014 D2

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