Remembering Andy Hebenton, hockey’s original ironman

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Long before Doug Jarvis and Keith Yandle and Phil Kessel and Garry Unger were making their marks as NHL ironmen, there was Andy Hebenton.

Yandle, the Flyers defenseman, is set to pass Jarvis for the NHL’s consecutive regular-season games played streak at 965 Tuesday against the Islanders. Nearly 60 years ago, the crown belonged to Hebenton, a winger who played 630 straight games with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. 

Hebenton moved ahead of Johnny Wilson for the record in Dec. 1963. He’s now 12th all time after recently being passed by San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns. (Yandle passed Hebenton in April 2017.)

“I guess I was just lucky,” Hebenton told Sports Illustrated in 1967. “Sure, I had some hurts now and then, but when I got them bad enough to miss a game I was always lucky enough to have a break in the schedule — a few nights when I could rest up.”

An ironman over WHL/NHL career

What separates Hebenton from Yandle and Jarvis is that his ironman streak wasn’t just an NHL one. The Winnipeg native didn’t just lace them up every single game of his NHL career, he also never missed a night during his entire time as a professional, which included 934 games in the Western Hockey League, a minor league from 1952-1974.

Hebenton’s streak of 1,062 consecutive regular-season games played started in 1952 with the WHL’s Victoria Cougars before he played in the NHL. It continued during his eight NHL seasons with the Rangers and a single year in Boston before he returned to the WHL to finish out his playing days over the next decade.

Only a minor league assignment following the 1963-64 season forced Hebenton’s NHL ironman streak to come to an end after 630 games.

The complete run ended on October 18, 1967 when Hebenton went home to Winnipeg to attend his father’s funeral while back with the Portland Buckaroos. Following his return, he didn’t miss another game until his final season a player in 1974-75.

Not just an ironman

Hebenton’s career is defined by more than just being hockey’s original ironman. He won two WHL championships, the 1956-57 Lady Byng Trophy, and was named to the 1960 NHL All-Star Game. His 26 professional seasons is only surpassed by Gordie Howe and Jaromir Jagr.

That season he won the Byng was also the closest his streak came to ending. After taking a stick to the eye, the lid swelled up, nearly forcing him out of the lineup.

“It shut so tight I couldn’t see at all, but somehow our club doctor managed to squeeze drops of some kind into it the next night in Montreal,” said Hebenton, who died in 2019 at the age of 89. “The eye opened up a little — just enough so that I could get into the game.”

Hebenton finished in the top-10 among NHL scorers three times and netted at least 20 goals in five of his nine seasons with the Rangers and Bruins.

You need luck to play that many hockey games consecutively without missing a game — whether it’s eye drops or possessing a high pain tolerance. But taking care of your body also helps. While players today use the off-season to workout and prepare for the next season, back in Hebenton’s day, training camp was used to get in shape. But he didn’t use his time off to completely relax, he took a second job, which was very common then, to lay cement for a contractor. 

“I’m proud of what I accomplished in the NHL as far as the consecutive game streak is concerned,” said Hebenton via Greatest Hockey Legends. “I did it as a member of the old six-team NHL. I had to be doing something right to have lasted that long because there weren’t as many jobs available in the NHL back then as there are today.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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