With his wide, gap-toothed smile and seemingly boundless youthful energy, Drew Doughty gave teammate Nikolai Prokhorkin a playful shove on their way back to the bench Friday morning.
The Kings defenseman had just broken up Prokhorkin’s pass during a pregame skate two-on-one drill. The play was casual. Doughty’s reaction was anything but.
“Bang!” shouted Doughty, who turns 30 on Sunday. His ever-present exuberance echoed around an empty arena. Even after 12 NHL seasons, his enthusiasm has hardly waned.
“I don’t feel 30,” Doughty said. “I still feel young. I guess it’s a milestone, in a way, but I’m not afraid of getting old. I’m just starting a new chapter in my life. Looking forward to it.”
As a player, Doughty is approaching the latter stages of his prime. As a husband and new father, he is embarking upon his next chapter as a family man. But his passion for the game has remained steady. At a time when some players begin thinking about life after hockey, he wants to learn to balance both for as long as he can.
“I still think he has a ton of hockey left,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said of Doughty, who scored his sixth goal of the season in a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night. “Loves playing the game. Has a real good hockey spirit.”
Doughty has always been this way. His coach in juniors, Dave Barr, vividly remembers his impression from the then-15-year-old’s first practice with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm: “Wow, we got something special.” An NHL assistant since 2009, Barr has seen the rest of the hockey world follow suit.
“He’s got a joy for the game,” said Barr, currently an assistant with the San Jose Sharks. “He’s so smart and has the ability to make plays. He knows where to be. He’s very good at anticipating where the play is headed. And that’s what makes the elite players elite. They have a feel for the play, they have a feel for what needs to be done.”
An aggressive player by nature, Doughty is still adjusting to his new on-ice responsibilities under McLellan. His opportunities to hip check and create offensive zone havoc have somewhat lessened. But his ability to dictate play hasn’t.
“That’s always been my job, to control the game,” Doughty said. “I can slow it down when I need to slow it down. I can speed it up. But now, I do those breakouts a lot more. I can’t remember once I’ve been the fourth man in the rush. I need to try to look for that and try to improve on that. That’ll help our team.”
Only in the first year of his eight-year, $88-million extension, the alternate captain still figures to be a key building block in the franchise’s future.
“What happens with these Hall of Fame-type players is that as they get older, they become even more dedicated to conditioning and living properly,” McLellan said. “They just become machines.”
McLellan likened Doughty to Kings general manager Rob Blake, a Hall of Famer who played until age 40.
“It involves more than just showing up, going through the meetings and playing a game,” Blake said. “It’s off-ice. It’s how you interact with the young players. I can see that whole part of his game come around.”
The September birth of Doughty’s daughter has altered his outlook away from the rink too. He credited his wife, Nicole, with making fatherhood actually feel easy. Where he once came home brooding after defeats, his mood now inevitably brightens after games — many more of which he plans to play before his career is out.
“It’s hard not to bring your job home, especially when you’re in the spotlight all the time,” he said. “But now I just go home and see her, and I’m right back to being eased off. Feels good. She smiles and everything, and it’s great again.”