Manny Malhotra wasn’t a healthy scratch for the Vancouver Canucks last Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. He wasn’t injured, either, apparently. Instead, he came out of the lineup for “personal reasons.” Two days later it became clear that was a bit of misdirection on the part of the Canucks, as they placed Malhotra on the Injured Reserve list and announced that he was done for the season.
This wasn’t because of a new injury, but because of concerns over an old one. Back in March of 2011, in a game against the Colorado Avalanche, the puck deflected off a stick and impacted Malhotra in his left eye. It was a brutal, devastating injury that cause him to miss the remainder of the regular season and nearly all of the postseason, as he only returned in the Stanley Cup Final.
Malhotra returned and played a full season in 2011-12 in a diminished capacity, but concerns for his safety began to develop in the Canucks’ front office and, just last week, Mike Gillis, the GM of the Canucks, made the call to end his season.
It was a decision that Malhotra didn’t entirely agree with and one that raises a number of questions. The most far-reaching question is who gets to decide when an injured player should play? Who is responsible for that decision?
For the most part, a player is deemed ready to play when a medical professional clears him to play. Most injuries in hockey are so common that doctors generally have a pretty good idea what the timeframe will be for recovery. Ray Whitney has a broken foot and will be out 4-6 weeks. Carlo Colaiacovo has a shoulder injury and will miss 3-4 weeks. Tuomo Ruutu had hip surgery and will need 3-4 months to recover. Etcetera, etcetera.
Normally, players are eager to return as soon as possible. In fact, the usual problem is wanting to return too quickly. But then there’s the odd case of Willie Mitchell this season. Mitchell had knee surgery during the off-season, with rehab delayed due to inflammation. He was, however, medically cleared to play near the end of January, but instead of immediately grasping the opportunity to get back in the lineup and on the ice, Mitchell was cautious and, essentially, didn’t clear himself to play.
It’s been over three weeks now since he was cleared by doctors and Mitchell is still out of the lineup, to the consternation of his coach, Darryl Sutter, who is likely feeling the pressure of coping without the big minute man, particularly since the Kings also lost Alec Martinez and Matt Greene to injury. Ultimately, it’s Mitchell’s body and no one’s going to be able to force him to play if he doesn’t feel ready to play.
The problem is normally reversed, which is when it gets difficult.
Hockey idolizes the wounded warrior. The history of hockey is filled with stories of players battling through pain and injuries to achieve glory and immortality, with the most legendary being Bobby Baun scoring in overtime to force a game seven in the Stanley Cup Final on a broken leg.
One of my favourite Trevor Linden stories comes courtesy of Cliff Ronning:
“You don’t know this, but Trevor Linden had cracked ribs and torn rib cartilage for the last four games of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final,” Cliff Ronning said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to hear your captain, in a room down the hall, screaming at the top of his lungs as they injected the needle into his rib cage. Knowing him, he probably thought we couldn’t hear. He would then walk into our dressing room like nothing had happened. That was inspirational.”
It seems to be a tradition every year, that as soon as the playoffs end, we hear about the litany of injuries that players from every team were secretly suffering through, managing the pain through cortisone shots and adrenaline. Even in the regular season, players play through pain and minor injuries. I’ve heard it said that no one in the NHL is ever 100% healthy during the season and that it’s all a matter of managing the injuries you have.
The culture around hockey is that you are expected to play as soon as you are able to do so. Sutter’s comments about Mitchell bear that out, as even back in January he was saying, “You know what, he’s got doctor’s clearance. He’s got trainers’ clearance. Coaches want him to clear himself. So do it.”
So do it. Play, even if you’re not 100% healthy. Play, even if you’re not comfortable on your surgically repaired knee. Play.
In football, it’s much the same. Consider Robert Griffin III, who stayed in the Washington Redskins’ playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, despite a badly injured knee that prevented him from running and planting to throw the ball, two fairly important things for a quarterback. In the fourth quarter, his knee buckled underneath him as he tried to puck up a fumble, bending gruesomely sideways. He required surgery to repair the complete tears to his ACL and LCL, as well as a tear in his meniscus.
His coach, Mike Shanahan, was criticized from all corners for not pulling him from the game, despite Griffin himself wanting to continue. Imagine, instead, that Griffin had avoided injury and managed to hobble his way through the rest of the game and engineer a comeback victory over the Seahawks. He would have been hailed for his courage and his coach would have been lauded for making the tough call to keep him in.
No one blamed Griffin for wanting to stay in the game. Players are supposed to put their bodies on the line for the team. It’s noble and heroic to do so, apparently. Instead, the coach was blamed for not saving the player from himself.
Consider Sidney Crosby, who had his head spun around by a blindside collision during the 2011 Winter Classic. He returned and played in the third period. He then played in the Penguins’ next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and got crunched into the boards from behind by Victor Hedman in what looked like a fairly innocent play. Crosby stayed in the game, with 19 minutes of ice time in an 8-1 blowout for the Penguins.
We all know what happened next: Crosby was diagnosed with a “minor concussion” and was out for nearly 11 months. Should he have been pulled from the Winter Classic for precautionary measures? Should he have sat out the game against the Lightning? In hindsight, yes, but that’s a harder call to make in the moment.
Concussions are especially difficult because they require accurate self-reporting. It’s easy for a player to lie in order to return to the ice faster, particularly if they just feel a little dizziness after exercise or a minor headache. Those symptoms can be too easily dismissed as the same type of minor injury or pain that they have played through in the past.
In the case of Malhotra, it’s not a matter of being unable to play, but of being at risk for further injury. The danger of a blindside hit to the head is heightened for Malhotra simply because he now has a larger blindside to deal with. Malhotra felt that he could manage the risk and continue playing, but Canucks management, after reviewing video, were not convinced. They pulled the plug on his season, not Malhotra.
Are they saving him from himself or are they preventing him from making his own decisions? When is it appropriate to step in and take the decision out of the player’s hands?
If Mike Shanahan should have removed RGIII from the Redskins’ game against the Seahawks or if the Penguins’ training and coaching staff should have stepped in to prevent Crosby from playing after one or both hits he suffered, then it’s hard to say that Mike Gillis and the Canucks’ management team have made the wrong decision with Malhotra. The result of keeping RGIII in was a more devastating injury that required major surgery. The result of keeping Crosby in was a concussion that needed 11 months of recovery. It’s possible that the result of keeping Malhotra on the ice would be similar.
It’s a difficult question to answer. If you felt strongly that a friend of yours was going to severely injure themselves performing some action, wouldn’t you stop him or her from doing that action? Now imagine that it’s not your friend, but an employee for whom you are responsible. Coaches and managers are in a position of responsibility in professional sports and part of that responsibility is ensuring the safety of their players.