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By Tim Wharsnby - CBC.ca
When, during the lockout, some thought there was no way the NHL season would be salvaged, Bryan Helmer still had hope.
The 40-year-old defenceman hoped for one more year. He hoped to play a 20th season of professional hockey.
Helmer hasn't hopped over the boards for a shift in the NHL in more than four years. His last NHL game was on Jan. 20, 2009 with the Washington Capitals against the Senators in Ottawa, fittingly not far from his hometown of Winchester, Ont. And as long as AHL teams were being fortified with young talent from the locked-out NHL, there was no room at the inn for Helmer.
But then the lockout ended. Helmer's phone rang. Four teams had interest. But it was first-place Springfield Falcons general manager Bruce Landon and head coach Brad Larsen who made an impression. They needed a defencemen. Helmer was back in business.
He had kept in shape skating with his buddies on an oldtimers' team in Westport, Ont., just north of Kingston, Ont., and worked out with his brother-in-law, New York Islanders defenceman Matt Carkner.
Helmer was in a similar situation two years ago, when halfway through the season the Oklahoma City Barons called to put him back to work.
"I've always said if I still could contribute and the body felt good I would continue playing," the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Helmer said. "Last year was a good year for me and there were no injuries. I still love to play this game. I love coming to the rink. I love the competition. I still have the drive. I still haven't ruled out returning for another season."
Why not? Helmer already has the record for most games played by a defenceman in the AHL at 1,097 and counting. He's also the league's all-time points leader among blue-liners at 562.
If Helmer can play in the AHL next season -- his only non-AHL season was in 2000-01 when he split that year with the Vancouver Canucks and the IHL's Kansas City Blades -- he will join Willie Marshall and Fred Glover as the only three men to have played in the AHL over parts of 20 seasons.
To say Helmer is a survivor is an understatement. He was only 18 months old when he had a cancerous tumour removed.
He was a raised on a farm, and any patch of ice in a nearby field was good enough for him and his friends to start a game. He played four seasons for the Wellington Dukes, a solid Tier II Junior A franchise near Belleville, Ont.
However, Helmer almost didn't return for his final season as a 20-year-old with the Dukes. Instead, he contemplated taking a job at a dairy farm back home.
But he was talked into returning for his final season. That was a good thing, because then New Jersey Devils scout Frank Jay, now with the Montreal Canadiens, saw him play and offered him a tryout for the 1993-94 season.
"I was going to go to the University of Guelph to play," Helmer recalled. "Only a few from that league were offered pro tryouts. But it was a no-brainer to give it a shot.
"I grew up as a big Montreal Canadiens fan. Two of the first people I saw standing right in front of me when I walked into the dressing room for [the Devils] training camp were Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer. Larry Robinson was an assistant coach. I was overwhelmed."
But Helmer performed well enough to earn a spot with the Devils' AHL affiliate in Albany, N.Y., where he helped the Falcons win 4-2 on Wednesday. It seems like everywhere he turns these days, there is a memory lingering.
His first NHL game wasn't until Oct. 11, 1998 for the Phoenix Coyotes against -- yes, you guessed it -- the Senators. He's played in 146 NHL games for the Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and the Capitals.
He's also played for 10 different IHL and AHL teams and won three Calder Cups, one with Albany and two with the Hershey Bears. Friday night's game will be Helmer's 1,458th (regular season and playoffs combined) in the pro ranks.
The Falcons haven't lost since Helmer joined them four games ago. They are first overall and give the forever young blue-liner a good shot at a fourth championship. It also gives his wife, Pam, and two children a few more months to watch him play.
A few years ago, Helmer's first-born child, Cade, asked, "Dad, when am I going to see you play in the NHL?" Then, unexpectedly, the Capitals had a bunch of injuries. Helmer was promoted from Hershey. Cade got his wish.
"He was seven," Helmer said. "He was more excited than I was. He had a permanent grin.
"You know, I never went to Europe, because playing in the AHL you're one step below the NHL. You never know. I got that unlikely chance at age 36. I still had that drive."
And that hope.