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On showing up: The invention of film, risking inflammation, and the NHL’s potential new iron man

Keith Yandle could become the all-time leader in consecutive games played in less than two weeks

NHL: Preseason-New York Islanders at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The presence of a camera changes the thing that its documenting — just look at any reality TV show to see how people behave when they are aware they’re being filmed. Do you think Shanae would have dropped a child’s birthday cake on the ground the way she did on Monday’s episode of The Bachelor if she wasn’t on camera, and therefore fully aware that she was on camera? She’d have no reason to behave so brazenly competitive at an event with so many kids in any real world, non-documented situation.

And it’s not just reality shows, where the action is often semi-scripted or forced; Peter Jackson’s eight-plus hour docuseries The Beatles: Get Back, released on Disney+ late last year, features a number of small moments where John, Paul, George, or Ringo make it apparent that they know they’re being filmed. They question what the movie is going to be, they try to work out a satisfying conclusion, and, every so often, they mug for the camera. “Ladies and gentleman, your hosts for the evening, The Rolling Stones,” John Lennon, riffing on and practicing his introductory line to The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, says to no one in particular at least five or six times in the series’ second episode, looking directly down the lens.

The contradiction is even evident in the genre’s history, traced all the way back past reality TV and cinéma vérité and making ofs to one of the very first moving pictures ever, Roundhay Garden Scene. The 1888 movie is less than two seconds of a family in an English garden and begins with them facing right at the camera before doing a little dance, clearly and obviously aware of the presence of the camera. The scene is believed to be the oldest surviving film—proof that, from the beginning, there is almost no way to film real life exactly how it is, or would be, without affecting it at all.

Keith Yandle is an NHL defenseman from Boston, Massachusetts who has played in every single game possible to him since he was 22 years, 6 months, and 13 days old. That’s a streak that spans 15 seasons, 4 NHL franchises, 4,684 days, and 959 games. The last time Keith Yandle missed a game, the words jeggings, vaccine hesitant, and dox were added to the dictionary; the Flo Rida song “Right Round” was in its fourth week at the top of the charts; and MySpace was the most used social media site. Yandle’s streak is as old as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first blockchain of cryptocurrency, and Prince Henrik of Denmark. Since then, approximately 56 million Americans have been born, 130 episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia have aired, and I’ve moved 10 different times. There have been 1,850 NHL players to make their debut in that time, including every player currently on the Flyers besides Derick Brassard and Claude Giroux. There have been two NHL franchises to change names, one to move, and two more added since the last time Keith Yandle missed a game.

Yandle himself has scored 93 goals and 479 assists. He’s spent 20,814 minutes on the ice during games and likely countless minutes outside of games. Ten times he’s played over 30 minutes in a game. His 572 points are the 39th most of any player during that stretch and 3rd most among defenseman, behind only Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. Yandle has played in three All-Star Games, received votes for the Norris Trophy three times, and has served as an alternate captain for both the Phoenix Coyotes and the Florida Panthers. His streak is now fast approaching the all-time record, held by Doug Jarvis, who played 964 consecutive games, beginning with his first career game in 1975 for the Montreal Canadiens and ending with his last career game in 1988 for the Hartford Whalers. Yandle projects to tie the record next week, on January 24 against the Dallas Stars, and break it the next day on Long Island, pending any more cancelled or postponed games, that is.

Phoenix Coyotes vs Vancouver Canucks Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

There are a number of factors that go into getting to play a hockey game in the NHL; ability and health being primary. Building a consecutive games streak is impressive, mainly because it combines all the factors together, which become more and more difficult to maintain the longer such a streak goes on. I can’t imagine going to my job as a [redacted] at [redacted] High School every day without a single absence for 15 years, and, while at times it may feel dangerous, there’s a lot less physical risk involved in my job compared to being an NHL player.

But something happens once a streak like that makes itself evident. Its presence begins having some kind of effect on the streak itself. If a coach evaluates a player and the factors that they input into putting that player in their lineup are health and ability and the preservation of a streak, isn’t that an artificial decision? If your behavior is different due to the presence of some outside force than it would be without it, then is that behavior inauthentic?

Now, I am not saying that Keith Yandle’s iron man streak is inauthentic. Playing 950 games in the NHL is incredibly impressive, and playing them all without missing any is even more so, especially with the recent landmine that is the coronavirus and the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols. And, of course, Yandle himself isn’t the one making the lineup decisions that keep him penciled in. My beef is more with any kind of complaining about scratching him. When it looked like Joel Quenneville was going to sit Yandle for last year’s season opener, there was apparently pushback from the rest of the Panthers’ locker room. Other players, members of the local media, and fans on social media made a fuss, and Yandle ultimately dressed that night and every game night for the rest of the season. Then, almost as soon as the playoffs started and the streak was no longer influencing coaching decisions, Yandle took a seat. He was scratched for Games 3, 4, and 6 of the Panthers’ six-game first round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This season, Yandle as a fixture in the lineup hasn’t really been in question, because, despite how poorly he has played at times, the Flyers aren’t exactly teeming with other options on defense, especially as shorthanded as they’ve been the further the season has chugged along. Yandle has allowed more shots on his net per 60 minutes than all but 10 qualified defenders in the league this year; of course, two of the defenders higher than him are also on the Flyers (Rasmus Ristolainen and Travis Sanheim).

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t have a lot of life philosophies or maxims about the universe. In part because I couldn’t ever pretend to tell people how to live their lives, but mostly because there is really nothing that fits across every single situation. I really hate it when anyone says any kind of “There are two kinds of people in this world” phrase, as if there are actually only two kinds of people in this world. But I do believe in showing up.

When I was an assistant ice hockey coach for my alma mater under former NHLer and former Flyer Jim Dowd, the team was facing some strange issues off the ice. A particularly spurned parent, against the wishes of his child, accused the head coach, a high profile target thanks to his background, of assaulting his child on the bench in the form of a kick to the back. The truth—that the foot tap to let them know their line should get back out on the ice happens more than a dozen times per hockey game—is neither here nor there. While the school was investigating the claims, he had to step away from coaching the team.

During that time, I just made sure that I was still there every day, at the games and practices and pasta parties. I wasn’t giving them advice on how to deal with those things, nor was I even really the greatest coach in the world, but I just kept coming. It may be something that I lean on because I don’t always know the right things to say. At funerals, I eke out the bare minimum, but I always figure it’s better to say nothing in person than it is to say nothing from anywhere else.

It’s not something heroic and it’s not something life-changing, but I believe in being there. When someone invites you to something, go to it. If your friend is playing a show in a bar basement to six people, be the seventh. If your cousin is reading anarchist poetry in a moldy abandoned basement, risk the inflammation. If you’re lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to suit up for an NHL game, do it. Availability is an ability, and dependability might be the most important ability.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Florida Panthers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

So did the reaction to the news of Yandle’s possible scratch to start last season keep it from happening? Maybe. Does that change how we understand his streak, especially if he passes Doug Jarvis? Should it? It’s possible, but I kind of think no, it shouldn’t. When it happened last year, I thought yes. And it’s not any kind of Flyers bias that has changed my mind, because even when I sat down to write out my thoughts, I was expecting to come to that same conclusion. But I’ve been done in by my own analogy and research. The streak isn’t inauthentic in the same way that the Whitley family’s reaction to being filmed by Louis Le Prince in 1888 isn’t inauthentic. It’s a true reaction, it’s simply a reaction that wouldn’t exist if not for the documentation of it. That doesn’t change the fact that it happened.

Additionally, a statistic is nothing without the context behind it, every number a story waiting to be told. The near-scratches and the avoidance of COVID and the people who stood up for him are all simply a part of that story. The streak is this weird, warped number that represents a lot more than simply a number of consecutive games. It represents everything that went into it, good and bad: Yandle’s Pee-Wee coaches; his truck driver father and his truck dispatcher mother; the game he left with an injury after just five minutes last April and the next game he suited up for; the nine NHL head coaches who have, wisely or not, put him on the ice; his wife and his daughter; every injury he’s fought through, every precaution he’s taken to remain virus-free, and every hit he’s laid without cause for suspension; the practices, the buses, the planes; every meal and every workout; a mid-season trade, a conference finals appearance, and a buyout; and now, the potential to be a lone positive story in a miserable Philadelphia Flyers’ season.

Finally, I would just like to note that should Yandle surpass Jarvis, how long he’ll remain on top of the list will depend on a few things. Phil Kessel is 29 games from surpassing Jarvis, and if Yandle were to miss a game any time in the next few months, Kessel would be capable of surpassing him before the end of this season. Patrick Marleau’s 910 game streak is also technically active, though, personally, I feel like not signing a contract until mid-way through the season—which is what Marleau is reportedly planning on doing, a la Justin Williams in 2019-20—should really count as missing games. Marleau would still need to play out the rest of the season and likely play next season as well, since he’s still over 50 games away. Kessel is over a year Yandle’s junior and, as a winger, plays a less physically demanding position, so there’s the possibility that Yandle as the all-time leader only lasts for as long as it takes for Kessel to play 24 games after that.

But that lack of finality is sort of the beauty of such a record. It’ll be relevant for as long as Keith Yandle keeps on showing up. It’s not really about the 965th game—it’s about every one of the 964 games that came before it and every game that comes after it for as long as he can keep going. Yandle has been lucky enough to be granted the opportunity to suit up for over 1,000 NHL games, and something tells me he’ll keep showing up for a few more.