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Backchecking: Jamie Baker

Jamie Baker played 404 NHL games, with the Nordiques, Senators, Sharks and Maple Leafs. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jamie Baker played 404 NHL games, with the Nordiques, Senators, Sharks and Maple Leafs. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jamie Baker was a hardworking defense-minded center who never felt secure in eight NHL seasons. But he does hold two records: he’s the only NHLer to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Quebec Nordiques, and the only one to play his final NHL game in Tokyo, Japan.

Not bad for an U.S. collegian who had to overcome a serious injury before he ever played a professional game. In his senior year, Baker broke an ankle and tore ligaments. The doctor told him two things: the bad news was he was done for the year, but the good news was the injury wasn’t career threatening.

Baker went on to play 404 NHL games in 10 seasons. And he still cherishes being an American Leaguer playing for Robbie Ftorek in Halifax in 1989-90 and getting that first call-up to play for the Nordiques against the Hartford Whalers. It was in the wee hours of the morning in Ftorek’s hotel room in Rochester, N.Y., and Ftorek told Baker he’d be playing right wing with Joe Sakic and Michel Goulet. “Two Hall of Famers,” says Baker, now 46 and a radio color analyst for the San Jose Sharks, laughing. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that to me.’ ”

Baker was proud of making the NHL, but realized he’d have to become a different type of player than the one who beat the odds to make it there. “When a guy’s backhand is harder than your slapshot, the decision to make changes is pretty easy,” Baker says. “Joe Sakic’s backhand was harder than my slapshot.”

In his initial NHL training camps, Baker saw Sakic, Guy Lafleur, Michel Goulet and Peter Stastny in the same room. He knew he’d never be that good and took faceoffs, penalty killing and defensive zone coverage more seriously, knowing it would be his way to remain.

Baker spent parts of two seasons in Quebec City before he signed with his hometown Senators for their modern-day inaugural season in 1992-93. He posted a career-best 19 goals and 48 points, but personal success was greatly overshadowed by the Sens’ inability to win (they won just 10 games). Still, he counts the first game in Ottawa as one of his career highlights. “People were so happy having hockey there,” he says. “Though there were no expectations for the team, you don’t make it to the pro level accepting losses very well. It was a long year.”

Baker left the Sens after one season and enjoyed his most productive NHL time in the three years following, when he played in San Jose. From 1993 to ’95, the Sharks played 26 playoff games and thrilled the relatively new hockey market. San Jose traded Baker to Toronto in 1996 where he suited up for one of hockey’s most storied franchises. “The first exhibition game with Toronto when I pulled that jersey over my head, I quietly walked into the bathroom area and I looked at myself in the mirror,” he says. “Though I’d been in the NHL a while, it gave me chills.”

Baker spent a year and a half in Toronto then left for the International League’s Chicago Wolves, where he won a Turner Cup title in 1998. He played one more NHL game – with the Sharks in Japan – and retired after a short stint in Finland. With 71 NHL goals, 150 NHL points and a slew of friends around the game, he feels fortunate to have taken the route he did. “I wasn’t good enough from an offensive standpoint game-in and game-out to be on the top two lines on good teams,” he says. “You have to provide value in the NHL. Good role players understand it and accept it.”

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