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Top Five: Detroit Sports Iron Men

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Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi played in his 1,000th career game on Sunday, but does he make the cut as one of Detroit's all-time iron men? Find out.

On Sunday, Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi did what few others have been able to do by playing in his 1,000th career NHL game. Not only did he just play, but he also contributed, scoring the winning tally in a 2-1 shootout victory for Detroit.

But Bertuzzi is by no means alone in his quest to 1,000 games, at least not in Detroit sports history. From Gordie Howe to Joe Dumars, the Detroit sports scene has long been known for the longevity of its stars. With that, I thought we’d honor some of those iron men in our Top Five this week.

There are going to be a couple ground rules before we begin. First and foremost, the player in question must have played at least half of his career in Detroit. For example, Bertuzzi wouldn’t qualify because this is only his second full season in Detroit; he played most of his career in Vancouver.

Second, the player must have been a significant contributor to the team. That doesn’t necessarily imply a Hall of Fame career, but as you’ll find out that usually comes with the territory.

5. Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons (1985-1999), 1,018 games

Of the players on this list Dumars is the first of three that spent his entire professional career in Detroit.

Along with Isiah Thomas, Dumars formed one of the best back court combos to ever grace an NBA floor, leading the Pistons to back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. Dumars was named the 1989 NBA Finals MVP by averaging 27.3 points in the Pistons' four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Thomas retired in 1994, Dumars took over the role of point guard, moving over from shooting guard. Dumars’ stats started to decline as a result; his scoring dipped from over 20 points a game in 1993 to 18.1 in 1994. His scoring average tumbled even further to just over 11 points a game in 1995-96. Dumars played just 38 games in his final season in 1999, but he still ended up as the Pistons all-time leader in games played with 1,018.

Dumars didn’t cut ties with the Pistons there, however. Dumars continued his career as a front office executive in 2001, becoming the team’s president of basketball operations. He promised a title in five years at the outset and delivered—four years later in 2004. His recent moves as an executive have led some to question him, but there’s no denying his contributions to the franchise as a whole.

4. Ty Cobb, Detroit Tigers (1905-1926), 2,806 games with Detroit (3,035 overall)

The former all-time MLB hits king was king for a reason: he played for a really, really long time. Cobb played 23 professional seasons, the first 21 with the Tigers. Perhaps even more impressive was that Cobb maintained a high level of play throughout his entire career.

Cobb hit under .300 just once in his professional career. Once. It came in his first season with Detroit, where he hit .240 with one home run and 15 RBIs in 41 games played. His next season he played in 98 games and hit .320 while knocking home 34 runs.

Cobb never batted below .323 after that, including three seasons with a .400 or higher average. Imagine Michael Jordan averaging over 30 points a game for his entire career and never wavering even as he neared 40 years old. Cobb was that good.

For his career, Cobb batted .367 and accumulated 12,100 total plate appearances in his Tigers career, 602 more than second-place Al Kaline.

3. Steve Yzerman, Detroit Red Wings (1983-2006), 1,514 games

In what may come as surprising side note, Yzerman is the only member on this list that is not first or second in all-time games played with the franchise he played for. Yzerman played his entire 23-year career in the Motor City, becoming Mike and Marian Ilitch’s first draft pick when they selected him fourth overall in 1983. In 1986, he was named captain of the Red Wings, a title he held for an NHL-record 20 seasons.

But Yzerman trails Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe on the all-time games played list for the Red Wings. As curious as it may sound, it’s actually the reason Yzerman is on this list and Delvecchio is not. Yzerman may have played in fewer games, but he was a true ironman for entirely different reasons.

For most of his professional career, Yzerman battled injuries. Some were minor; others threatened his career. In 1988, Yzerman suffered a scary knee injury when he slid hard into the goal post in a game against Buffalo. He would return later that year, though, and finished the season with 102 points and proceeded to collect six straight 100-point seasons from 1987-93.

Late in his career, Yzerman's knee issues persisted. After memorably leading Detroit to the 2002 Stanley Cup on one good knee, he missed 66 games of the 2002-03 season after undergoing knee realignment surgery. A procedure usually reserved for the elderly, Yzerman is believed to be the only professional athlete to return to sports. He played 75 games the next year while scoring 18 goals and 33 assists.

Yzerman finally decided that he couldn’t continue in 2006, retiring after 23 seasons. He then joined the front office as the team’s vice president, becoming a Stanley Cup champion once more in 2008 as an executive. Though he left Detroit to run his own franchise in Tampa Bay this past season, "The Captain" is a true Detroit sports legend.

2. 

Al Kaline, Detroit Tigers (1953-1974), 2,836 games

Kaline first laced up his cleats in 1953 with the Tigers. When he hung them up 22 seasons later in 1974, he was still with the Tigers.

Kaline played just 30 games in his inaugural season, but he became a regular the next year, playing in 138 games while hitting .276 with 43 RBI. In 1955, Kaline hit .340 at the tender age of 20 to become the youngest player to win a batting title. The previous record-holder? Ty Cobb, who was born one day after Kaline on Dec. 19.

When Kaline called it a career in 1974, he had played in 2,834 games, all with the Tigers. It’s the most by any Tigers player ever, including Cobb. Kaline is the Tigers record-holder for home runs (399) and accumulated 3,007 hits and 1,583 RBIs in his professional career. His No. 6 was retired by the club in 1980.

Kaline remained in the Detroit area like Dumars and Yzerman and currently serves in the Tigers organization as an assistant to general manager Dave Dombrowski, in addition to being a former color commentator for the team. Kaline remains one of the most popular athletes to ever wear a Detroit uniform.

1. Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings (1946-1971), 1,687 games with Detroit (1,767 total NHL games, 419 WHA games, 2,186 total)

There’s really no question when it comes to Detroit’s all-time iron man.

There’s a reason people make a big deal when someone reaches 1,000 games in what can be a brutally taxing sport. What Howe did in his professional career is nearly impossible to match.

Mr. Hockey started his career with the Red Wings in 1946 as an 18-year-old, scoring a modest seven goals and 15 assists in 58 games. By 1950, Howe was one of the elite scorers in the league, winning the first of his six NHL scoring titles. Howe led the Red Wings to four Stanley Cup championships in the decade, battling toe-to-toe with their rivals in Montreal for the most part.

Though the Red Wings’ dominance ended with the 1950s, Howe’s scoring prowess continued. Howe tallied his best season in 1968-69, potting 44 goals en route to a 103-point season—his 23rd in the league.

Howe briefly retired in 1971 after a Red Wings-record 25 seasons with the club. But Howe couldn’t stay away from the game for long, signing a deal to play with the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association in1972, granting Howe the opportunity to play with his sons Mark and Marty Howe. In his last professional season with the Hartford Whalers in 1979 (who had joined the NHL before the season), Howe scored 15 goals and 26 assists—at the age of 51. When Howe returned to Detroit for the All-Star game that year, he received a raucous standing ovation from the Joe Louis Arena crowd.

Howe held nearly every single NHL scoring record by the time he retired, records that went untouched until Wayne Gretzky smashed most of them. Howe played all but 80 of his NHL games in Detroit, a span of 25 seasons. In all, Howe played 1,687 games for the Red Wings and 1,767 total NHL games, 11 more than second-place Mark Messier. Including his time in the WHA and the minor leagues, Howe played in 2,478 professional hockey games in a career that spanned five decades.

Red Wings fans everywhere certainly appreciate the contributions Howe made not just to the Red Wings, but hockey as a whole. If you walk around the Joe even today, there are still a few No. 9 jerseys walking around. It’s unlikely anyone is ever going to match Mr. Hockey in longevity.