This is a story of what you can see and what you can’t.
What you can see is Brian Rolston, now in his 16th NHL season, playing on a competitive level night in and night out that defies his years.
On this particular night, playing in his 1,197th NHL game, Rolston takes a feed from Pa Parenteau and rips a shot past goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere that stakes the New York Islanders to a rare, albeit brief, lead on the road against the Colorado Avalanche.
What you can’t see — what doesn’t show up on score sheets and fantasy websites — are the intangibles that his veteran presence brings to the young Islanders locker room.
The fact of the matter is that Rolston, along with fellow veteran American players Marty Reasoner, Jay Pandolfo and Mike Mottau, are not only valuable contributors on the ice, but their respective character and experience make them indispensable resources for younger players and coaches alike.
“Those guys are almost like an extension of our [coaching] staff,” says Jack Capuano, head coach of the Islanders. “First and foremost is their leadership in the room — knowing when to say things, how to say things — that’s what is most important. Young guys can watch them and how they prepare for games. And it speaks volumes when you have a young team.
“[And] as a coaching staff, you know that when you leave that room, you’ve got good leaders in there.”
So much has been made of the Islanders youth movement in recent years that it seems almost impossible to ignore the constant skepticism of bloggers and major media who view the team as a competitive afterthought.
But with the infusion of young talent such as John Tavares, Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Okposo, however, there has been a new sense of optimism to go with the new energy into the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
To help mold the group of talented youngsters, general manager Garth Snow brought in some veteran players to help show them the way.
“It’s just the natural process of the game,” says Reasoner, who was signed by Islanders as a free agent in the offseason. “[The young guys], they’re excited to be around, and everything is new to them. They can provide energy. Like they say, it’s an evolving game. And you get younger guys and the game is getting faster and more skilled and the younger guys coming up help your team.”
For as long as teams have been rebuilding and reloading with younger players, general managers have been counting on veteran players to ease their transition into the professional ranks.
Whether it’s Maurice “The Rocket” Richard watching out for a young Jean Beliveau or Mario Lemieux serving as mentor and landlord to an 18-year-old Sidney Crosby, veteran players have historically taken young players under their wing.
“I was pretty lucky to be on a team with a lot of veteran guys,” says Reasoner, who came into the league in 1998. “I was in St. Louis and we had Pierre Turgeon, Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis — you know those guys really teach you how to be a pro, and what it’s like to come in and work hard every day.
“Just to sit back and watch how those guys conduct themselves, that’s where you take the most from — you come to work every single day and you work hard. And when you do that, you get the results.”
And as Reasoner says, it’s not just what those older players are saying. It’s how they go about their business on the ice and how they carry themselves when they’re off the ice. They show what it means to be a pro, to play with pride and passion, night after night, and how talent isn’t always enough to win games.
Despite the big money and great expectations that come with being a high draft pick, the learning curve is steep for all young players who may feel that the weight of the franchise is on their shoulders, especially an organization such as the Islanders with its long-standing tradition.
“A lot of the time, I think younger players get down on themselves pretty quick, like maybe if they don’t score for a few games or whatever,” Rolston says. “And that’s another thing that’s easier said than done.”
But, as Rolston says, every player who slips on an NHL sweater, no matter their age, whether they’re fresh out of Juniors or high school, whether they’ve been around a few years:
“They’re here for a reason, and eventually it does come around.”
And although there’s been considerable skepticism about the future of the storied franchise, the truth is there is a renewed sense of optimism on Long Island. Success won’t come overnight, and it won’t come easy. It’s the message that veterans like Rolston bring anything to the table, and it would be wise for the younger players to take heed.
“There are a lot of things that take place out on the ice, but I think early on in your career, [what’s crucial is] knowing the importance of what it takes to be a pro,” says Capuano.
“When those guys talk, [the younger guys] listen. They’re going to take their advice, whether it’s on the bench, whether it’s adversity throughout a game or adversity through a couple game losing streak, whatever it may be.”
And even though you might not always see it on the ice or in the standings, the impact these veteran players have on their younger teammates is something you know is there. And it’s what it will take to resurrect this once proud franchise, and to bring another championship banner to the rafters on Long Island.