Today's athletes, it seems, only ripen with age

NOT so long ago, hockey players this old might have been considered one step away from the golf links. There is Brett Hull, age 37. Steve Yzerman, 37. Luc Robitaille, 36. In fact, you could pretty much roll the top half of the Detroit Red Wings scoring table on a black TV screen with teary music, and pass it off as the credits to a Quebec rebroadcast of "Thirtysomething."

Yet when the Wings face the Vancouver Canucks in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight, they won't be merely a sentimental favorite to stave off the accumulating dust of time. Rather, they'll be the overwhelming pick to win the whole tournament.

As in other sports, athletes are accomplishing extraordinary feats well past what were once considered "prime" years. Whether it's 37-year-old Barry Bonds hitting a record 73 home runs in a season, or 39-year-old Michael Jordan returning to lead a wretched Washington Wizards franchise back to respectability and the hope of a playoff berth, the past year has featured a series of remarkable moments for sports' oldest athletes.

The drive to perform

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter at 44. Gordie Howe skated until he was 50. So some analysts look at the current crop of silver-thatched overachievers and wonder if it's not all just a temporary swing of the sports pendulum. Others, however, suggest a longer-term trend may be at work. Today's elixir of youth, they say, is a mixture of dedication, fitness, and opportunity that will continue to push the age limit in sports upward.

"There are more good players who are older than at any time in baseball history," says Eric Enders, a baseball historian in Cooperstown, N.Y.

That list begins with Bonds and moves on to Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens, who last season won Cy Young awards as the best pitchers in baseball – at 38 and 39 years old, respectively. In football, there's 40-year-old lineman Bruce Matthews, a 14-time Pro Bowler and the only nonkicker to play in more than 290 games.

Yet the spike is perhaps most obvious on the ice. From Colorado's Patrick Roy, the top goaltender in the league at age 36, to this year's 39-year-old assist leader, Adam Oates, players beyond their mid-30s remain some of the most productive in the league. All of the top eight scorers on the regular-season champion Red Wings are more than 30 years old, and half are over 36.

Ryan as the model

Among all these athletes, the common thread is that each has a little Nolan Ryan in them. If athletes were automobiles that rolled off assembly lines, he would have been the first edition of the new model. In short, he was the most visible figure in one of the biggest sports revolutions of the late 20th century: the new emphasis on fitness.

To Ryan, pitching wasn't just about the few hours he spent on a mound each day – either in practice or in a game. Rather, it was a near-total commitment – mentally and physically – to train each day, whether there was a game that night or not, all year long.

While other players often employed couches and barstools as integral parts of their training regimen, and treated the offseason as an "off" season, Ryan went through a detailed list of workouts each day, from stretches to stair-climbing to bike-riding. Since his legendary longevity set the standard more than a decade ago, the road to consistent success has been strewn with barbells and power bars.

"A lot of these guys are fitness fanatics," says Jason Kay, managing editor of The Hockey News in Toronto. Suggesting that the two-decade-long rise in the average age of National Hockey League players is at least partly due to greater longevity, he adds: "They're really serious about taking care of their bodies, which is sort of a latter-day thing."

Beyond that, experts say advances in medicine and surgery have helped players recover from once-career-ending injuries.

Expansion teams open a door

The nonstop theme of expansion has meant more teams, more jobs, and more need for players of all ages. And the increased amounts of money have provided more incentive for athletes to stick around.

Whether all these factors have actually led to a great number of 30-something superstars still remains a debate, though. With no data to show that more athletes are playing better and longer, the evidence remains anecdotal.

And there are plenty of competing anecdotes from yesteryear, from ironman pitcher Walter Johnson's 1907-27 career to quarterback and place kicker George Blanda – who played in 340 gridiron games in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Yet the exploits of today's older superstars have led some analysts and managers at least to reconsider the accepted arc of an athlete's career.

Now and into the future, perhaps, the passage into the 30s won't mean what it once did: a career almost certainly in decline. "It's expanded what people think of as 'prime' years," says Kay. "The high end has moved up."

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