Musick: Ageless 'Zeus' reigns over playoffs

CHICAGO – Let’s go back in time.

It’s 1998. The leaves are changing colors. What are you doing?

“I was 10 years old,” Blackhawks forward Ben Smith said with a laugh. “I don’t even know.”

So, you’re not playing in the NHL?

“I was not,” Smith said.

That’s OK. We can’t all be like Michal Handzus.

Forget about Old Man Winter. It’s time to salute Old Man Spring.

That would be Handzus, 37, whose NHL career has spanned parts of two centuries and included stints in four time zones. He has played in 1,009 regular-season games, notching 483 points and 498 penalty minutes and 1,415 shots on goal and a bunch of other statistics.

Yet one number surprised Handzus as he discussed his remarkable career this week.

One hundred career playoff games. Smack dab, on the button. Hello, triple digits.

“Really?” Handzus said.

If the Internet says it’s true, then it’s true.

“I don’t really think about that,” said Handzus, who is to self-promotion what the North Pole is to humidity. “You think about the series and how to play, not how many games you play.

“I think, when you’re done with hockey and you’re done with your career, you’re going to look back and see those interesting [statistics]. But, in the heat of the moment, in the heat of the playoffs, you don’t think about it.”

Luckily, no rule prevents fans and reporters from thinking about it. So let’s think about it.

One hundred hockey playoff games is no joke. That’s like bungee jumping off of the world’s highest bridge. That’s like riding the world’s longest roller coaster, filled with ups and downs and twists and turns and anything else that makes your face turn green.

But Handzus is still going strong, the contents of his stomach intact. He was one of the Hawks’ best players Monday in career playoff game No. 100, blocking three shots in nearly four minutes of short-handed ice time and earning an assist on even strength.

It was classic Handzus, doing all of the little things that can add up to a big difference. Teammates razzed him on the bench as a sellout crowd bellowed his nickname – “Zeuuuuus” – in appreciation of his efforts.

Is he glitzy? No. Is he glamourous? Of course not.

Is he good? Ask the Blues.

“He’s really good,” said Blues forward Maxim Lapierre, a nine-year NHL veteran. “He’s a big, strong and really smart player. He’s strong defensively, and I think people underestimate how good he is offensively. He’s a tough player to play against.

“I don’t really know him personally, but by the way he acts on the ice, he must be a real professional on and off of the ice. This is why he’s still in the league.”

On this, heated rivals can agree. Handzus is respected as much as any player in the Hawks’ locker room, a veteran who rarely speaks but always leads by example.

“He’s a quiet leader,” Smith said. “He’s reliable. It seems like you could put him out there at any time of the game, and he’ll do the job. He’s definitely a guy that’s good for us young guys, looking up to him and seeing all he’s been through and what he does at 37.”

But all good things must come to an end, even if your nickname is Zeus.

Handzus will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and it’s tough to say what will come next. The Hawks could re-sign him to another one-year deal like they did last summer, or they could decide to shop for a second-line center on the free agent market.

As far as Handzus is concerned, pondering the future is kind of like thinking about statistics. Save it until after the playoffs.

“At this age, you go season by season,” Handzus said. “And then you figure out how you feel, how other teams feel about you, and then you go from there.”

One more question.

Is it still fun?

“Oh yeah,” Handzus said. “A lot of fun. Especially now.”

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.