Washington’s trip through Western Canada is bringing several of its players back to places where they spent some formative years. And tonight’s game against the Oilers in Edmonton brings a Caps coach back to the place where his own lengthy NHL playing journey came to a close nearly a decade ago.
Caps left wing Jason Chimera is now the elder statesman on the Washington roster. The only Capitals player born in the 1970s, Chimera hails from Edmonton and he was a fifth-round (121st overall) choice of the hometown Oilers back in the 1997 NHL Draft when the draft was still nine-round process.
That 1997 NHL Draft produced three 1,000-game players right off the top: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Olli Jokinen were the first three players chosen and all are still active in the league and adding to their games-played totals.
Only a quarter (seven) of the 28 players chosen in the fifth round that summer ever made it to the NHL, and only three of those managed to forge careers of 100 games or more. And now, 16 years later, Chimera is the only one of their ranks who is still active in the NHL.
He’ll play in his 720th NHL game tonight at Rexall Place against the Oilers, the team that game him his start here in 2000-01. Chimera got into one game that season for the Oilers, getting recalled from AHL Hamilton in the midst of his second pro season. The personable left wing was just 21 at the time, and he was installed into the lineup for a Saturday night home game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Sporting uniform No. 20 now worn by the Oilers’ Luke Gazdic, Chimera played 6:58 in a 4-2 loss to the Kings in that Dec. 9, 2000 game.
Three days later, he was sent back to Hamilton.
It would be more than a year before Chimera got the call to return to The Show, but that one game in the middle of the 2000-01 campaign still stands out. It held – and continues to hold – a great deal of meaning for him.
“It was Hockey Night in Canada,” recalls Chimera. “My grandpa was really ill at the time and he passed away shortly after I played in it. I got to go visit him in the hospital before; he couldn’t make it to the game. He had no TV in his hospital room, but we made sure he had a TV for the game.
“It was a pretty cool moment because I got interviewed and got the Hockey Night in Canada towel, which is every kid in Canada’s dream. I’ve got that framed and in my house. It was a special moment because of the situation with my grandpa. Being able to go visit him after the game and to spend some time with him after the game and before he passed away was pretty special because he was one of my biggest fans.”
Chimera’s second NHL game came more than a year later, and he notched his first NHL goal that night, against the Islanders in New York. That was the first of three NHL games for Chimera in 2001-02; he was in the NHL for good starting in 2002-03.
The Oilers swapped Chimera to Phoenix in the summer of 2004, but the thrill of playing in Edmonton has never waned for the 34-year-old winger. When he and his Caps teammates practiced on Wednesday at a nearby public rink, parents Don and Audrey and brother Jeff were there in attendance, and they’ll be here tonight for the Caps-Oilers tilt, too.
“I think when you get older you know you’ve got some years left,” muses Chimera, “but you don’t know when the last time will be that you play here. You want to cherish these moments in front of your family, especially your parents.
“They were at the practice this morning and love seeing me be here and playing, and it means the world to me that they can come to these games. As a parent now, when I take [son] Cale to hockey at 6:30 in the morning I realize how hard it was and how much work it was, what they did for me. There’s nothing better than to see your kid play live and they love it and it’s just nice to go have dinner with them and hang out with them. It’s nice.”
That work ethic Chimera spoke of is the main reason Chimera has outlasted the other fifth-rounders from his 1997 draft class.
In 2003-04, Caps coach Adam Oates was among Chimera’s Oilers teammates. It turned out to be the final season of Oates’ illustrious 19-year Hall of Fame career.
Oates went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final with Anaheim in June 2003, but didn’t sign with Edmonton until September of that year, just past his 41st birthday.
“What I remember most is how well I was treated by everybody,” by [then-Oilers GM] Kevin [Lowe], by [then-Edmonton coach] MacT [Craig MacTavish]. I really, really struggled at the beginning.
“As an older guy, in hindsight you really shouldn’t miss camp. I signed late, and it took me way too long to get going. They treated me great. The guys were great, it’s a great franchise, it has been and it is. [I have] good memories from it.”
Among Oates’ occasional linemates that season was a 24-year-old Chimera.
“It certainly makes you feel a little older when you’ve played with a guy who’s coaching you,” admits Chimera. “Adam taught me a lot. I played with him a little bit in Edmonton; I was a younger kid so I was playing on the fourth line and we played some minutes together on the ice.
“He was one of those guys who taught you a lot. I can remember him teaching little things like where to be around the net and things like that. He still made some passes that you don’t even think would be on your tape that I wasn’t ready for. You learned from him that way. He was a pretty good role model because he was nice to young guys and always treated young guys with respect. He taught us a lot.”
A decade later, several of those ’03-04 Oilers that Oates mentored are still active in the league: Eric Brewer, Radek Dvorak, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres.
Aside from Oates, the second-oldest player on that ’03-04 Oilers team was ex-Cap Igor “Iggy Pop” Ulanov.
Rexall Place’s days appear to be numbered; ground is expected to be broken next spring for a new downtown arena that is slated to open here in Edmonton in 2016-17. Until then, expect Chimera to savor his remaining visits to Rexall.