Montreal Canadiens goaltender Patrick Roy sat in the trainer's
room at Quebec's Le Colisee one night in the spring of 1993, his
eyes fixed on a television that was showing the spectacle just
outside the door. The Nordiques were manhandling the Canadiens
in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, which was tied
2-2, and if Montreal was to survive, Roy would have to carry the
team. But since taking a slap shot off his right shoulder early
in the second period, he had been unable to lift his arm. As a
glum Roy watched two pucks zoom past his backup, Andre (Red
Light) Racicot, to allow Quebec to tie the game, an attendant in
the press box scurried from seat to seat, delivering the
Canadiens' official statement: Roy's out for the game.
"Looks like a bruised rotator cuff," Eric Lenczner, Montreal's
orthopedist, told Roy.
"Can we freeze it?" Roy asked.
"We can try."
October 11, 1998
With his shoulder numbed by two shots of an anesthetic called
Marcaine (but no more mobile than it had been before), Roy came
back for the third period and helped his team win the pivotal
match in overtime, the second of his 10 straight sudden-death
victories that magical spring. The Canadiens went on to win that
series and their 24th Stanley Cup.
"Pat just wanted to win," Lenczner says of the goalie, who
played in the 1994 playoffs with appendicitis. "As long as
[players] know they can't do permanent damage to themselves,
most push the envelope of pain. They just don't talk about it
Hockey players do their jobs with a stoicism that is bred to the
bone--even a fractured one. For eight months a year they shut up
and play, stubbornly and sometimes "borderline stupidly," as
Calgary Flames captain Todd Simpson puts it, because to prattle
on about pain would be to make it somehow special or even heroic
instead of banal.
"There is a clear understanding that hockey is a physical and
sometimes violent game," Dallas Stars general manager Bob Gainey
says. "You are going to be injured." Pain may not be all that
defines the NHL's corporate culture, but stitches are certainly
the thread that connects the game. Tough? The only medical
procedure some players fear is an autopsy.
Roy's show of grit is just one of many matter-of-fact tales
plucked from the annals of the NHL. Indeed, Roy's shoulder
injury barely qualifies him for Montreal's pantheon of purple
hearts, which is headed by Gainey, who played Game 6 of the 1984
semifinals with one shoulder dislocated and the other separated.
"We didn't have a lot of depth," Gainey says, "and I thought I
could play eight or 10 minutes and kill penalties."
On March 20, 1994, Carolina Hurricanes left wing Gary Roberts,
then with the Calgary Flames, had his right thumb shattered in a
game against the Toronto Maple Leafs when it was hit by a shot.
Trainers stanched the flow of blood, and he didn't miss a shift.
Between periods Roberts had the finger put in a splint, and he
kept playing in the following weeks while it healed. In the
playoffs that spring Roberts, who couldn't lift his right arm
above his head because of an injured neck, put on a protective
collar for Game 6 of the first round against the Vancouver
Canucks. However, he removed it in overtime because he was
having difficulty looking down and seeing loose pucks near his
skates. Roberts was by far the best player in the series.
More? O.K., let's put our cards on the table and play an
imaginary high-stakes poker game in which pain is the currency.
You put up, say, an exhausted and flu-ridden Michael Jordan in
Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, and we'll
see your Michael and raise you a Bobby Baun. Baun, a defenseman
for the Maple Leafs, scored the winning goal in Game 6 of the
1964 Cup finals at 2:43 of overtime after suffering a broken
tibia midway through the third period. After the game he
returned to Toronto, iced his leg for two days, limped into
Maple Leaf Gardens 90 minutes before Game 7, got his leg taped
and asked doctors to freeze it every 10 minutes. Baun played a
regular shift in a 4-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, but
he celebrated winning the Stanley Cup in the back of an
ambulance. His leg was in a cast for six weeks.
As the Edmonton Oilers trudged down a corridor at the Nassau
Coliseum to their team bus on May 17, 1983, they saw something
that lit the bulb over their collective heads and changed the
direction of their franchise. An hour earlier the New York
Islanders had beaten Edmonton 4-2 to win their fourth straight
Stanley Cup, and through an open door the Oilers, on the cusp of
their own dynasty, saw that their conquerors had ice packs on
just about every inch of their personal real estate.
"About four of them, including Dog [Islanders wing Duane
Sutter], had knee operations after [the series], but they all
had played," says Calgary coach Brian Sutter, Duane's brother.
"The point is, there's a price to be paid to win, and playing
hurt is part of the price. The Oilers had aches and pains, but
they didn't have aches and pains like the Islanders, and the
Islanders won. Wayne Gretzky told me about it at a Canada Cup
once. He said the Oilers figured it all out after that."
The hockey ethos that exalts playing with pain is no more
complicated than a kid's refusal to say uncle in the schoolyard.
"At times your manhood is up for grabs," Montreal assistant
coach Dave King says. "Playing hurt is a status thing. It's the
simplest way of getting the respect of teammates, opponents,
coaches. As coaches, we're always judging players. After a hard
check or a big-time slash, is he the kind of guy who gives up on
the play and heads to the bench or does he stay with the play?
After a guy blocks a shot, does he lie on the ice or get back
up? Pain is one of hockey's measuring sticks."
There are some who come up small, branded as "soft" even though
their pain threshold, not their courage, might be lacking.
Defenseman Vladimir Malakhov missed Game 4 of the Canadiens'
second-round series against the Buffalo Sabres last spring
because of neck pain, an injury that was privately questioned by
players in his own dressing room. The previous spring Sabres
goalie Dominik Hasek, a two-time Hart Trophy winner, underwent
his own trial-by-raised-eyebrow when he skated off the ice
during a playoff game with a real, albeit relatively minor, knee
Early in his career with Montreal, Claude Lemieux, now with the
Colorado Avalanche, played two positions--right wing and prone.
After contact he would often writhe on the ice, trying to draw
penalties. But his Canadiens teammates and coaches took umbrage
at his conduct because his behavior made a mockery of the
protocol of the game. When Lemieux lingered horizontally during
Game 1 of the 1989 finals, coach Pat Burns had had enough. He
grabbed trainer Gaetan Lefebvre's sweater before Lefebvre could
hop over the boards and growled, "Let him lie there." Burns
benched Lemieux for Game 2.
"They both had a bad habit of lying on the ice every time they
got hit," says Brian Sutter, who would not name names but was
clearly talking about Lemieux and his younger brother, Jocelyn,
one of Sutter's former St. Louis Blues teammates. "I'll never
forget the last time it happened because it involved me and
Dougie Gilmour [page 104]. The first time, the two of us let our
trainer [Norm Mackie] go out, but we said to tell [Jocelyn],
'Get up because I'm never coming out again.' Sure enough, next
game [Jocelyn] goes down again and lies there, and we wouldn't
let Normie off the bench. We just held the gate shut."
Brian and his brother Darryl, the San Jose Sharks' coach,
learned the code of hockey when they were youngsters sitting in
the lobby of the rink in tiny Viking (pop. 1,200) on one of
those wintry Alberta days when you need a block heater for your
car and your lungs. The boys' feet were achingly cold. Their
father, Louis, noticed tears on their cheeks and offered the
only counsel he ever gave his sons about the game: If I ever see
you cry in a rink again, you're through.
They understood. The NHL's six Sutter brothers, Brian, Darryl,
Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron, grew up 10 miles outside Viking on a
farm, where workaday hurts were shrugged off. Hockey's roots
are, in part, rural--tough Canadian kids from small towns
dominated the game until the 1970s--and many players shared the
kind of rub-dirt-on-it mentality that would warm any HMO
manager's heart. When Mark Messier's high stick gave Rich Sutter
a concussion and knocked out four teeth a few years ago (the
Vancouver Canucks trainer literally scraped black tape from
Messier's stick off the roof of Sutter's mouth), doctors had to
restrain Sutter from returning to the ice.
The Sutter brothers are old enough to recall the six-team NHL, a
virtually closed shop with 110 jobs in which even a solid
veteran like Baun feared that injury could lead to unemployment.
When Brian, the eldest, was a rookie in 1976-77, there were 18
teams, 60% of what the league will have when its expansion is
finished in 2000. "It was a tremendous privilege for us to play
in the NHL," says Darryl, who spent eight seasons with the
Chicago Blackhawks. "I played with broken ribs two or three
times. If your rib goes through your lung, that's one thing. If
not, you freeze it and play. The guy who plays hurt is bringing
leadership to the locker room because other guys follow. I was
friendly with some of the Cubs in the early '80s, and I remember
Bill Buckner coming into our room and not believing the injuries
we play through."
Buckner's candid glimpse was rare because hockey usually masks
its pain. The weekly NHL injury reports are like Stephen King
novels: gruesome but fictional. "If it says doubtful, knee,"
says Montreal's King, "it could just as soon mean shoulder and
the guy's going to play. If guys know where a player hurts, they
might go after that area, finish a check a little harder."
The subterfuge has led to what journalists call the Diagonal
Rule: If a player says his right ankle hurts, he probably has an
injured left shoulder. When a CBC reporter waylaid Lenczner in a
hallway during the 1996 Canadiens- New York Rangers playoff
series and asked about center Saku Koivu's injury--he had
sprained his left ankle--the man of science looked at the
camera, gulped and said, "Right groin."
"The groin," King says, "is all-purpose."
Today's players make more money than their predecessors and have
a strong union, factors that might encourage them to renounce
hockey's heritage of pain. Certainly the medical attention is
better. The trainers, whose forebears used to tape sticks as
well as ankles, are resolutely professional, and the doctors are
more sensitive to injuries, especially those caused by blows to
the head. "We called them headaches," Darryl Sutter says. "Now
they're called concussions."
Given generational differences, it would be astounding if
Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke was not
frustrated by the number of games his franchise player, Eric
Lindros, has missed in six seasons--102 of 462, or 22% of the
Flyers' total. Clarke, who in 1973-74 witnessed teammate Barry
Ashbee play most of the season wearing a football-style
protective collar because of a neck injury, publicly discussed
his captain's leadership this summer, including how Lindros
needed to set the tone by outworking everyone. It wasn't much of
a reach to discern a veiled reference to injuries.
But the imperative to play hurt is alive and well, and most
players remain cartoonishly tough. "It's still that going-to-war
mentality," the Flames' Simpson says. "Whatever it takes."
As long as they can't permanent damage, most players push the
envelope of pain.
"It is clear that hockey is a physical and violent game. Players
are going to be injured."
"At times your manhood up for grabs. Playing hurt is a simple
way of getting respect."