WILMINGTON — Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, the grand-daddy of the New England pro sports scene, twirled his first knuckleball in a Red Sox uniform in 1995. New England Patriots linebacker and stroke survivor Tedy Bruschi, drafted in the second round in 1996, is barely his junior.
And guess who is next on the New England Old Fogie Circuit?
If you guess Boston Bruins forward P.J. Axelsson, you not only are right, you probably need to get a life.
Talk about under the radar.
Axelsson, 33, is in his 11th NHL season (it would've been his 12th if not for the lockout), all with the Bruins.
The soft-spoken left winger is indeed going to Hockey Heaven some day. He has survived some ugly days around here.
"When I first got here, there weren't any champions in Boston," said Axelsson. "Now, everybody is one. The Patriots, Celtics and Red Sox ... It hasn't been easy being compared to those guys.
"Not making the playoffs two years in a row (two different times) was tough to take. But there have been some good times, too. We've had some pretty good teams with Ray Bourque and Joe Thornton."
The native of Kungalv, Sweden, has forever been a third- and fourth-line forward, which is not to be confused with an All-Star. He has 97 goals and 165 assists in 738 games. That averages out to about one point every three games.
Through 20 games this season he doesn't have a goal and "only" five assists.
But he's got an extra big "A" on the front of his sweater and it has nothing to do with his name.
"P.J. plays the point on the power play for us. He's the best penalty killer we have up front," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "He does the little things you don't see on the stat sheet. P.J. is a great team guy and the guys love him."
The assistant captain has a unique perspective of the Northeast Division-leading Bruins' newfound success.
He was on two teams that led the conference in points but lost in the first round of the playoffs. He saw Joe Thornton get run out of town. He saw Ray Bourque request a trade to a winner and then eventually win the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche.
Like everybody else with a passion for the sport, he is enjoying this nice start — 12 wins, 3 losses and 4 ties.
"There is no doubt that fans are talking about hockey more than they have in a few years," said Axelsson. "I hear it when I go for coffee in the morning. People are talking about our games. They are excited."
So is Axelsson. But ...
"I can understand people being excited, especially the way we finished last year and the way we started this year," said Axelsson. "And I wouldn't want to stop that. But it's been only 20 games. That's nothing. We have a long way to go and then we have the playoffs. We haven't done anything yet."
One can understand Axelsson's apprehension. Losing a first-round series in April would kill this momentum in a hurry.
"I like this team because we do feel like a team," said Axelsson. "We have a good group of young guys, like Milan (Lucic), David (Kreci), Phil (Kessel) and Blake (Wheeler), that they are developing. We have some great veterans, too. We're coming together."
The irony is that Axelsson's role has grown recently. He not only has been moved to the point on the second power play unit but, despite the fact that he hasn't scored a goal, he is one of Julien's go-to players in the shootout.
"It has been an adjustment on the point, but it's been fun. I like trying new things. But I have had to work on skating backwards, which isn't easy," he said. "And as far as the shootout goes, I guess (Julien) has seen something in practice. I like doing it. But I've only made one of four. So I'm not automatic."
Axelsson says he has no regrets about spending his entire career here. In fact, he's come to love Boston.
"I feel very fortunate to play for the Bruins and live here," said Axelsson. "I walk around the city a lot with my wife and son. I especially like the North End ... And playing for the Bruins is an honor. There is so much history with this team. It's incredible to see guys like Bobby Orr and Cam Neely. These guys were incredible."
As for the Bruins' immediate future, incredible is a little strong. Axelsson would rather wait a few months before engraving his name on the Stanley Cup.
"You have to take it one day, one game at a time," said Axelsson. "When you start looking ahead too far, that's when you get in trouble."
Sounds like something he might have heard three-time Super Bowl champ Bill Belichick spout several thousand times over the last half-dozen years.
Axelsson smiled, "And if I did (hear it from him) that wouldn't be a bad guy to listen to, would it?"
E-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com