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NHL playoffs: Injured players often unfairly criticized for subpar efforts

Joe Thornton of the Bruins in the 2004 playoffs vs. MontrealJoe Thornton took heat, but had a good reason for going pointless in seven games vs. Montreal in 2004. (SI photo)

By Allan Muir

I owe Joe Thornton an apology.

Honestly, there are probably a few other players I've wronged along the way. But mostly Joe.

I got to thinking about my need for a little public penance in the wake of Gregory Campbell's injury on Wednesday night. Campbell, maybe the most valuable fourth-line center in the league, mythologized himself by finishing off a critical shift on the penalty kill with what later turned out to be a broken leg.

A broken leg. That is flat out hardcore.

That video of him grimacing, trying to stand and do something, anything, to keep the Penguins from scoring will be played for the rest of our lives to illustrate the price players are willing to pay for just a chance to capture the Stanley Cup. (And if the B's somehow win it, can you imagine the moment when he gets wheeled out onto the ice for his turn to lift it? Magic.)

MUIR: Why the NHL playoffs are the best in sports

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=h15m87WsCHQ

Campbell's courage struck a chord, and not just in the hockey world. It resonated in a way that most injuries never will.

But is that fair? I mean, clearly a broken leg evokes a more visceral reaction than most injuries. You hear those words and you think of University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware screaming in pain while his fractured tibia jutted through his skin (or so I imagine -- I haven't seen the video and I don't plan to). Or maybe you picture Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann after having his skeletal structure rearranged by linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants.

On the scale of relate-able physical devastation, Campbell's injury ranks right up there with a puck to the mouth or a gushing head wound. It may never have happened to you, but you can still feel it.

Which brings me back to Joe Thornton and, in particular, his play for the Boston Bruins in the 2004 playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens that changed his career. Jumbo Joe wasn't good in that series. In fact, he was pretty much a dog. And so I, and pretty much everyone else who was covering the series from a Boston perspective, ripped him mercilessly for what appeared to be a clear and persistent lack of courage in the face of a determined opponent.

Turned out he was playing with torn rib cartilage.

GALLERY: Playing in pain, NHL style

I've had cracked ribs before. Not fun. But I'm told this injury is much worse. Try turning your body- -- excruciating. And then there's breathing, which I've heard some would be willing to forgo if it meant an end to the searing pain that comes with every inhalation.

It's a seriously debilitating injury. And he went out there and played hockey like that.

Now to be fair to my previous position, Thornton brought some of the scorn on himself with a personality that might best be described as “California casual.” There wasn't a lot of obvious passion in his game at the best of times in those days, so it was pretty easy to equate his 0-0-0 stat line to an unwillingness to battle through Montreal's heavy checking.

His insistence on avoiding the press didn't help, either. Sure, it made sense later. He had something to hide. Teams refuse to make an injury like this public, knowing full well that it only sets up a player to be targeted and puts him at risk for further damage. So he dodged the press to avoid giving anything away.

But Thornton did fight through the series, which the B's lost in seven games, before any of us found out what was wrong. Which brings up the issue of context. If everyone sees you "paying the price," as happened with Campbell, you're a hero. Tell everyone after you've been eliminated about some internal injury you were playing through and it sounds like an excuse. But Campbell battled for 60 glorious seconds. Thornton did it for seven inglorious games.

And maybe that's why there's a double standard.

His story is hardly unique. It speaks to the character, or maybe the insanity, of NHLers that most have to be fitted for a toe tag before they'll miss a playoff game. Think back to Dan Girardi last year, who was held together by spit and duct tape by the time the Rangers were knocked off. Or Ryane Clowe in 2011, who missed only one game with a separated shoulder and was in such bad shape that he couldn't dress himself or tie his own skates.

HACKEL: NHL's time-honored tradition of playing in pain

There's a dozen guys like this every year, maybe more. Guys who can barely function, but haul themselves on the ice with the idea that giving 50 percent is better than nothing, all the while getting ripped for their sub-par efforts.

I'm guessing when the Los Angeles Kings are dispatched, we'll hear that Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown were battling through some serious issues that would explain away their ineffective play. By that point it won't matter.

But it should.

Campbell will be an icon for his sacrifice. The least we can do for guys like Thornton and Girardi and Clowe is respect the effort, and cut them some slack.

That's what I should have done.

Sorry about that, Joe.

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