I was up one night watching two of my brethren on a sports station break down the news around the NHL. In no time, injuries became the topic of discussion. Both analysts agreed openly that at one point in their playing careers, they had deceived their doctors and trainers regarding an injury so that they could resume playing sooner rather than later.
Every player goes into a season hoping for a healthy campaign, but very few have that actually happen.
Hockey players are proud, competitive and have strong thresholds for discomfort while playing. In saying that, there's a slippery slope that a player gets on when he decides to play when he's not 100 per cent healthy. The slippery part is in that the player has to distinguish whether he is hurt or injured. Although they sound like the same thing, they are not. This is the fine line that challenges every hockey player at some point in their career as they chase the dream of winning a spot on an NHL roster or winning the Stanley Cup.
Playing hurt a 'badge of honour'
The truth of the matter is, a few weeks into training camp very few players will be 100 per cent healthy. In the mind of many athletes, being hurt is part of the game, a badge of honour, if you will. It's the folklore of the game.
Every player plays hurt, heck, Bobby Baun scored a Stanley Cup winning goal all the while playing with a broken leg. Bobby Orr played with pain for most of his shortened career. I recall playing with a sports hernia for over a year. At the time our captain Pat Lafontaine was on the shelf with a serious concussion and Ted Nolan asked if I could possibly gut through it and have the surgery in the off-season. We went on to win the Northeast Division, won a dramatic Game 7 in overtime against Ottawa in Round 1, but unfortunately fell to Philadelphia in Round 2.
More recently, Jordan Staal required foot surgery after an errant PK Subban skate punctured the top of his foot during the second round of the 2010 playoffs. His imminent return looked bleak, but Staal returned in record time to play in the same series he was injured in. This summer, more surgery was required on the foot. He will miss the first month of this season.
Again, last season, Ian Laperriere blocked a slapshot with his face, injuring his orbital bone and suffering a concussion along with it. He returned in the Eastern Conference final against Montreal only one month after the injury occurred. He too will miss the start of this season with post-concussion syndrome with no timetable in place for his return. The same can be said for Boston Bruin Marc Savard after that nasty blindside hit by Matt Cooke.
After Lord Stanley is handed out, there is a long and steady parade of players to the O.R. for repairs. I'm guessing, but I bet that all of these players told their respective medical staffs, coaches and general managers that they felt comfortable with their decision and were ready to go.
Is it worth the risk?
At the end of the day, how many players honestly felt the risk taken with their health and well-being was worth the reward achieved?
The answer? All of them. They will tell you it was worth it at the time. We don't have the luxury of hindsight, unfortunately.
When you're a kid, you dream of just playing in the NHL. Once you have accomplished that, it's Stanley Cup or bust. Yes, there is a bit of ego and recklessness involved, a sort of invincibility that players feel when stepping onto the ice banged up.
The reward is the ultimate respect - a champion label, the reward for the sacrifices that you and everyone who has helped you along the way have made, and your legacy when everyone has forgotten you.
A lot comes into play when a player makes the decision to play injured. How important is the game? What is your overall importance to the team? Can you live with the worst thing that can happen as a result of you playing injured on the ice? Will you make the injury considerably worse or could you make an error that costs your team significantly? Are you a young player with more opportunity or an older player with the door closing?
There is life after hockey. All of these factors will run through your mind when the doctor says, "How do you feel?"
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