It takes a lot for a hockey player to come out of the lineup.
Hockey players want to play. If it seems that NHL players have more commitment to their game than NBA, MLB and NFL players have, well, perception is reality.
There's only one group that appears close. NFL players go through so much to get on the field and probably have to endure more pain and abuse than any other group of athletes.
The constant collisions on every snap—whether in practice or in games—should not be disparaged or overlooked. Football players go through demanding rigors from the time they start playing organized football.
But many players develop a love-hate relationship with their sport. The NFL does not offer the majority of its players guaranteed contracts. They can get cut as soon as their employers believe they are getting diminishing returns.
The degree of resentment in the NFL is high. That may cause certain players to look to survive rather than play hard as a losing season progresses.
Basketball players often develop a reputation for playing hard when they want to and taking it easy at other times. This goes back to the old—and ridiculous—assertion that NBA players only turn it on during the last five minutes of the game.
NBA players may be the most athletic of any group. However, while they have to endure an exhaustive schedule and their game demands significant cardiovascular conditioning, basketball players don't have to endure the physical hammering that goes on regularly in the NFL and NHL.
Baseball players are often the first to tell you that their sport does not demand the same kind of physical conditioning as the other three majors.
Case in point: ESPN baseball analyst and former player John Kruk. During his career, Kruk was noted for his solid left-handed hitting stroke and his rotund physique. When questioned by a female fan about his conditioning, Kruk let loose with this telling retort.
"I ain't an athlete, lady, I'm a baseball player," Kruk said.
The first part of that quote became the title of Kruk's biography.
While most baseball players keep themselves in better condition than Kruk did, their conditioning level and work ethic does not compare to that of NHL players.
Hockey players need strength, pain tolerance, endurance, explosive speed and maximum conditioning to endure the rigors of their sport.
NHL players simply never coast. They go all out during every shift they play and expend their energy. That's why shifts last 45 seconds to one minute, and two minutes at the most. They are basically sprinting with every stride and playing to the point of exhaustion.
They may rest two or three minutes on the bench before they go at it again.
The coordination it takes to play the game is overwhelming. Try deflecting a 100-mph slap shot while balancing yourself on skates. The object of the deflection is not just to get a piece of it, but to deflect the puck in such a manner that the goalie can't stop it.
While you are doing this, opposing defensemen are hammering away at you to prevent you from getting a good look at the puck.
The skills needed to play the game are myriad, and none of them will help you if skating is not second nature.
Despite all the demands the sport and coaches put on NHL players, it seems that hockey players, more so than other athletes, realize how lucky they are to play their sport professionally and relish the opportunity to put on a uniform and play before adoring fans.
In many cases, observers point to the humble origins of many players who hail from small Canadian towns away from the media spotlight. That may have some validity, but it doesn't tell the whole story.
For example, Mats Sundin was a dominant player for 13 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He's a native of Sweden and was perhaps the second-greatest Swedish player behind Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
Sundin was one of the most humble superstars in Leafs history. "He was a leader, cared about his teammates, was very dependable and responsible and also was tremendously humble," former coach Pat Quinn told the CBC.
It's never easy to play hockey. From the time a player first pulls on a jersey, it's demanding and often expensive. Players realize, from the first time they step on the ice, that it's a privilege to play, and most seem to retain that opinion for as long as they play the game.
That's why the work ethic displayed by NHL players is second to none.