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No quit in Flyers veteran O’Donnell

SEAN O’DONNELL Closing in on 40 SEAN O’DONNELL
Closing in on 40
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA — When defenseman Sean O’Donnell skated around with the Stanley Cup as a member of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, he didn’t know how much longer his NHL career would last.

He was 36 years old and realized there were more games behind him than in front of him. He stayed one more season in the land of Disney, then rejoined the Los Angeles Kings, with whom he began his career. After two years there, he was a free agent again. The Kings were looking for more youth on the blue line, so O’Donnell began to scout for possible employers.

He liked how the Philadelphia Flyers had battled back from an 0-3 deficit against the Bruins to victory in Game 7 in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, and his close friend and former Duck teammate Chris Pronger was on the squad. So the City of Brotherly Love seemed a natural fit.

When general manager Paul Holmgren called him, O’Donnell said, it was an easy decision.

“It’s been a lot of fun,’’ he said. “We’ll see how far we can go on this run.’’

Heading into Game 3 against the Bruins tonight at TD Garden, O’Donnell and his teammates have a tall order — digging out from an 0-2 deficit against the Bruins.

O’Donnell has plenty of history with Boston. He was a valuable contributor during his three seasons with the Bruins from 2001-02 through 2003-04, which was the year leading up to the lockout.

He was a stabilizing presence and a leader on the ice and an eloquent spokesman off it. But management elected not to lock up free agents because of the uncertain post-lockout landscape, so O’Donnell signed with the Coyotes before being traded to the Ducks.

“It seems like a long time ago,’’ said O’Donnell. “It’s a shame. We knew that the way Boston was setting themselves up, they didn’t want to have those contracts heading into the lockout.

“We knew the team was going to be very different once the lockout ended. So we talked about making a nice run because it was a good, deep team. We were up, 3-1 [against Montreal in the first round], and we just couldn’t get that [fourth win].

“[Michael] Nylander got a concussion and [Joe] Thornton was hurt. We just couldn’t seem to score those key goals. It was too bad. [Then-general manager] Mike O’Connell put a hell of a team together that year.’’

During the lockout, O’Donnell began thinking about his career and even wrote a book about his experiences in the game. He realized he wasn’t going to play forever, he just didn’t know when the end would come.

“When I signed the deal after the lockout, I thought, ‘This might be it,’ ’’ he said. “It was a three-year deal. I went down to Anaheim and won the Cup there, and that rejuvenated me.

“As a pro athlete, you want to believe that you wake up every morning and say, ‘This is the best job in the world,’ and that’s motivation enough.

“But I think the fact that I’ve been on a couple of different teams in the last four or five years — I don’t want to say I’m reinvigorated, but you go to a new place and you want to make sure you impress the new coach and the new general manager and the new fans. You don’t get a chance to relax and kind of get settled.

“Any time you can be on your toes at 37, 38, or 39, it brings out the best out in you. That has helped me stay fresh, bouncing around from team to team. It has worked so far.’’

O’Donnell, who turns 40 in October, said his approach for the last several seasons has been to see how he feels at the conclusion of each one. He has been remarkably durable throughout his 15 full NHL seasons. Through the last four years, he has played 323 regular-season game, an average of 80.75 per year. He has logged 1,173 total games and will play his 103d postseason contest tonight.

He continues to savor every day he has in the game. The length of his career has exceeded his wildest expectations, and has been met with some amusement by his wife Laura.

“She’s said, ‘You’ve been saying one more year for the last three years,’ ’’ said O’Donnell. “That’s the truth. If you’re lucky enough to be a pro athlete and you get to the age of 34 or 35, I think 95 percent of the guys are done. Anything past that, you say, ‘One more and we’ll see how it goes.’

“That’s kind of the way it’s gone. This summer it might be it or I might say, ‘Let’s go one more and see what happens.’ I don’t think I’m going to get a gig as good as this any other time.’’

Part of O’Donnell’s good fortune has been his enduring good health, for which he is grateful.

“I’ve been able to stay away from the big injury,’’ said O’Donnell, who knocked on the wooden bench in the Flyers dressing room for good luck. “I’ve had bumps and bruises and stuff but I haven’t had that one big one.

“Some guys have had shoulders or knees or hips. I do a lot of stretching. I think I’ve been able to stay fairly injury-free, and as long as I can do that, I’m game.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.

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