This piece was originally written for The Hockey News. Being that you can only write about the same topic so many times, I’ll be periodically including relevant pieces on Backhand Shelf, with permission.
Playing with injuries has as much effect on your head as it does your body.
It’s not always pain that limits your movement; it’s usually your brain. It’s tough to convince your far-too-reasonable mass of grey matter that taking a hit to make any play is a good idea when your shoulder feels like its being held together with decade-old elastic bands. So on a sizable number of occasions during a career in which I went over ten years without missing a game to injury, I was half-useless to my team by trying to play through the damage.
Like a couple years ago in the ECHL playoffs, when I had a bone bruise on my ankle. Sounds like nothing your average hockey player would miss a game for, but holy smoking crap are there “this-isn’t-fun” grit-your-teeth moments with a bone bruise. So, like with any nagging injury, I took the steps I needed to be in the lineup every night.
In my case, my trainers has devised a medical pad (wait, that sounded way too fancy – they cut up some stiff foam) designed to take the pressure off the painful area. But all the foam and Advil in the world can’t stop a part of your foot from pressing into your skate and causing some misery. And that’s just the way it is – you’re going to deal with some distracting pain to play in playoffs, so the (sexist) mantra is basically “man up, Sally”, or the world’s stupidest fill-in-the-blank cliché, “the ankle is a long way from the heart”.
The moment I would hit the ice for warm-up, all I could think about was my bulky, differently tied skate – not the pain. I constantly fidgeted with the padding and tape to minimize the pressure and bulk, because the moment the game starts, lord knows you don’t want to be thinking about your ankle. The chance to fidget with gear is reason 1,468 why warm-ups rule.
I looked like I could skate just fine (as the reporter is typing “Bourne looks like he’s skating fine”), and I could once the adrenalin started flowing. But there was still a voice inside my head trying to protect me from further damage. An annoying, persistent voice. In short, I was taking jump shots instead of driving the net. I was dumping the puck in instead of trying to beat the d-man wide. I was doing positive, acceptable things, but not the things that made me effective.
For some grinders, getting three shots, making no turnovers and getting the puck deep is considered a good game. But for a goal scorer, health (mental or otherwise) is all the more essential to succeeding at your job. You have to take the puck to trouble spots and be creative, something that’s awfully hard to think about when sharp pains are a constant reminder that there are other, more basic ways to play the game. And sometimes, as I did, you become less effective.
When you reflect on the NHL’s seemingly ridiculous injury policy (you can essentially watch a guy get a leg amputated on the rink, then see him listed with a lower-body injury) it not hard to figure out that there’s a reason the policy remains in place.
Agitators – whether it’s Dustin Byfuglien or Matt Cooke – are looking for ways to help their teams on and off the score sheet. As much as I hate to admit its effectiveness, these guys will find your injury and pick at it, and over time, it saps your will to push back.
In my junior days, I had nearly broken my wrist in the first game of a playoff series against the Merritt Centennials. Merritt had the type of little punk you could backhand in front of his own parents and they’d shake your hand. Sure enough, he isolated it. Little slash. Tiny hack. Mini whack. For games on end. And before long, not only was I enraged, I didn’t want to skate anywhere near the kid. The routes I would normally take were completely altered, even though I looked fine to your average onlooker.
These nagging, pestering aches and pains make you a different player, not because you’re consciously afraid of getting hit, but because you’re somewhat aware that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or in this case, play the game. You always have the option to play a safer way without getting singled out for hurting your team, but when “not hurting your team” is the goal, you’ve set the bar exceedingly low, and your play suffers.
In playoffs, we don’t know who’s affected on which teams. This is generally why making predictions in playoffs is like flipping a coin. There’s so much parity in the NHL, if you suddenly have a healthy Jaromir Jagr and a hurt Sidney Crosby, we could have to switch the “disappointing” and “hero” labels the media has thus far brandished them with. We just never know.
And that sums up playoffs. You need a team deep enough to pick each other up when a few guys are hurt. You need a goalie to give you a chance every night, and you need those difference-makers to stay healthy and shine.
Most of the remaining teams have that mix. So let’s throw the boys onto the ice and find out who’s hurt. And more importantly, who’s healthy enough to lift 34.5 pounds of engraved silver and nickel.