Search

YOU GOTTA PLAY HURT

May 05, 2014
May 05, 2014

Table of Contents
May 5, 2014

SI.com
THE MAIL
2014 NFL DRAFT PREVIEW
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
  • The playoff beard is a cute badge of honor, its thickness a measure of how deep a team goes into the postseason. Those two dozen stitches in the mug, that four-tooth gap, that broken leg you finish out your shift with? Those are the badges of courage by which the NHL measures itself come spring

NBA PLAYOFFS
POINT AFTER
Departments

YOU GOTTA PLAY HURT

The playoff beard is a cute badge of honor, its thickness a measure of how deep a team goes into the postseason. Those two dozen stitches in the mug, that four-tooth gap, that broken leg you finish out your shift with? Those are the badges of courage by which the NHL measures itself come spring

THE CAPTAIN of the Ducks looked different following Anaheim's first playoff game on April 16. Ryan Getzlaf has a typical hockey face, bumpy here and cratered there, but after he took a puck to the chin on a one-timer from the Stars' Tyler Seguin in the dying seconds of the Ducks' 4--3 victory, the left side of the center's mug was swollen and stitched, with a jagged line of sutures (doctors said there were too many to count) running from the right corner of his mouth to the left side of his jawbone. Getzlaf, whose jaw was sore but not broken, drank his meals through a straw for the next 24 hours. He also skipped practice two days later after his wife, Paige, gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Willa, at 12:36 a.m. on April 18—the morning of Game 2. "I was in there icing my face as she was trying to push a baby out," he said later.

This is an article from the May 5, 2014 issue Original Layout

Getzlaf, who finished second in the NHL to the Penguins' Sidney Crosby in scoring this season, with 87 points, nevertheless was his usual spectacular self in Anaheim's 3--2 win that night. Playing with a face mask over his grill, he ran over Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski on his first shift of the game and then, with the Ducks trailing 1--0, tied the score when he stole the puck, skated toward the crease through the left face-off circle and beat Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen with a point-blank snap shot. "Once we established my jaw wasn't broken—if it was set in place and everything was O.K.—then I was going to be able to go," Getzlaf said afterward of his decision to play.

Welcome to the Stanley Cup playoffs, when players treat bruises, breaks, displacements and violent alterations to their facial features as if they were nothing more worrisome than mosquito bites. Playoff beards might be cool, but the true face of the NHL's postseason looks like Getzlaf's, right down to the baseball-seam stitching. "Two months of playoffs will age a player more than an 82-game regular season," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. "You don't think about rest and recovery; you just go until you drop."

This year's first round had barely begun when players started to go down. Getzlaf got his face rearranged on the first night of the postseason. Four days later, in Game 3 of the series between the Lightning and the Canadiens, Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos fell to the ice after getting knocked silly by a knee to the head from Montreal defenseman Alexei Emelin late in the second period. The Lightning captain returned for the third period, played the next game and led his team in scoring for the series (two goals, two assists). He was unable, however, to keep the Canadiens from sweeping his team out of the playoffs.

In New York, Rangers wing Carl Hagelin took a high stick to the mouth from the Flyers' Jason Akeson in the third period of their series opener. The Philadelphia rookie drew blood, and Hagelin drew a double minor. New York scored twice on the ensuing power plays en route to a 4--1 victory. Hagelin got the Rangers' final goal, wristing a rebound past Ray Emery. "I'll take that," Hagelin said triumphantly after the game. "There was a lot of blood."

Not all the wounds this time of year are opponent-inflicted—players skate with such intensity in the playoffs that sometimes they're dangers to themselves. In the Bruins' 4--1 victory in Game 2 of their series with Detroit, Boston forward Milan Lucic managed to slice open one foot with his opposite skate while trying to throw a check. Instead of heading to the bench, Lucic stayed on the ice and scored the Bruins' third goal. "It wasn't so bad," he said. "A couple of stitches, but a long way from the heart."

Few sports measure up to hockey's reputation for toughness—another athlete's agony is a hockey player's paper cut. The willingness of NHL players to rub some ice on their wounds and get on with the game is one of the things that makes the sport so alluring to its fans. But even the game's greatest player was struck by the measure of sacrifice that the chase for the Stanley Cup demands. Wayne Gretzky's epiphany came when he was walking past the Islanders' dressing room after New York had swept his high-flying Oilers to win the Cup in 1983. "Guys were limping around with black eyes and bloody mouths," Gretzky wrote in his autobiography. "It looked more like a morgue in there than a champion's locker room. And here we were perfectly fine and healthy. That's why they won and we lost. They took more punishment than we did.... They sacrificed everything they had. And that's when [Edmonton teammate] Kevin [Lowe] said something I'll never forget. He said, 'That's how you win championships.' " Over the next seven years the Oilers won five times, four with Gretzky. Even the Great One had to learn how to pay the price.

THE FIRST-ROUND series last year between the Senators and the Canadiens was a dentist's delight. In Game 1, a rising shot hit the mask of Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson, who skated to the bench, handed a dislodged tooth to the trainer and continued playing. "Sometimes I stop pucks with my face," Anderson tweeted after the game. "Because it's the playoffs." In the next game, Montreal goalie Carey Price also lost a tooth after he got hit in the mask by a skate. Then in Game 3, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban chopped at the stick of the Senators' Jean-Gabriel Pageau while the center was shooting from the high slot. As Pageau's wrister flew past Price, Subban's stick bounced up and caught Pageau in the mouth. Pageau raised his stick in celebration with his right hand, put his left to his mouth and skated to the corner to find his missing tooth. Just as Anderson and Price had done in Games 1 and 2, Pageau kept right on playing.

There's nothing unusual about such valor. The game's culture—even its weather—dissuades players from a sense of entitlement. "Kids who play hockey grow up carrying their own bags," says Holland. "Their feet freeze. They're not pampered. There's no special treatment. They owe the game; the game owes them nothing."

Contrast, say, the Bulls' Derrick Rose opting out of last year's NBA playoffs because he was wary of reinjuring his knee, even though he had been medically cleared, with another Chicago star, Blackhawks sniper Patrick Kane. The 2013 Conn Smythe winner missed the final 12 games of 2013--14 with an injured left knee. He returned for the postseason wearing a brace with which he could not get comfortable. He took to wearing it to bed. Kane hasn't missed a shift so far and is tied for third with three postseason goals, including the overtime winner in Chicago's 4--3 victory over the Blues on April 23 that tied their series at two games apiece.

During Boston's victory over Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals last spring, Bruins fourth-line center Gregory Campbell suffered a broken right leg when he blocked a shot from the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin. Campbell struggled to his feet and played on for 55 agonizing seconds. "I knew I couldn't push off, so I figured it was broken," says Campbell, who once had three plates inserted into his face after blocking a shot in 2005.

Nearly three weeks later, in the finals against the Blackhawks, one of Campbell's teammates, center Patrice Bergeron, played through a separated shoulder, a broken rib and torn cartilage. He never gave not playing a second thought until he left Game 5 early, in an ambulance. He was discharged but returned to the hospital after playing in Game 6. "I was getting undressed [after the game], and I had a hard time breathing," he says. "I thought, Maybe someone should look at this." At the hospital later that night, doctors discovered a puncture in Bergeron's lung. Says Campbell, "If you're not hurt that bad, you don't want to be the guy laying on the ice. I'm not the most skilled guy. Playing in the playoffs is a privilege."

FOR CUP hopefuls, depth is the best defense against the attrition that comes with the playoffs. "We have 14 forwards and seven defensemen," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said a month before the postseason began. "That's a luxury this time of year, but it won't last through the playoffs. It never does." Sure enough, in Game 3 against the Stars on April 21, Anaheim defenseman Stephane Robidas broke his right leg when he got tangled in front of the Ducks' net with Dallas winger Ryan Garbutt. It was the same leg that Robidas shattered while playing for the Stars in November, which doctors repaired using a metal rod. His replacement, Mark Fistric, was effective in Dallas's 4--2 Game 4 victory, delivering five hits in 13 minutes. Depth can be a deciding factor in the playoffs. In the 1990 finals, Oilers winger Petr Klima was languishing on the bench in triple overtime of Game 1, but he scored the winner on his first overtime shift. Edmonton went on to win the Cup in five games.

Rather than disclose injury specifics, teams sometimes employ what is known as the diagonal rule (i.e., if they claim a bruised left shoulder, they are hiding an injured right foot). The ruse keeps opponents from knowing which body part to go after. After the Stars' Trevor Daley and Antoine Roussel jarred Getzlaf's mask during scrums in Game 3, Anaheim sat him for the next game—citing only an "upper-body injury"—and Getzlaf complained that Dallas was targeting his injured jaw. He returned in Game 5 and scored a goal, with two assists, in a 6--2 victory.

"People talk about having to get hot in the playoffs," says Holland, whose team has now reached 23 straight postseasons, winning the Stanley Cup four times along the way. "Sometimes that just means staying healthy. Every round you lick your wounds, count who's left, and it's last team standing all over again."

There's no crying in hockey. When the Canadiens' Claude Lemieux lay on the ice after the Flames' Jamie Macoun stick-checked him during Game 1 of the 1989 finals, his theatrics so enraged Montreal coach Pat Burns that he instructed the trainer not to attend to Lemieux. The winger slumped back to the bench, and Burns benched him for Game 2.

Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere would never have stood for Lemieux's antics either. Laperriere, who played 16 seasons in the NHL and last played in 2009--10, was widely esteemed as the league's toughest player. In Game 5 of Philadelphia's opening-round series against the Devils that season, a puck struck him in the right eye. "I thought my eyeball exploded in my eye socket," he says. For three weeks, Laperriere stayed off the ice and remained as still as possible, suffering from dizziness and positional vertigo. "Every time I would put my head back, the room would start spinning," he says, "like a really bad drunk spinning and trying to hold on to something just to make sure I wasn't falling." A week after an MRI showed that the bleeding in his brain had stopped and the blood was dry, he played against the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals. "There's a difference between playing hurt and playing injured," he says. "When doctors are like, 'Is that painful?' Well, what's pain? It's a word. You play hurt.... Why? Because that's your dream of winning that Cup. People say, 'That's your health. That's the most important thing.' They've never been in my shoes and they've never been in any NHLer's shoes."

Playoff beards might be cool, but the true face of the NHL's postseason looks like Getzlaf's, right down to the baseball-seam stitching.

Skating Through Pain

Playoff lore is replete with tales of heroism. Here are five of the most vivid

1952

Maurice Richard / Canadiens

The Rocket—who had been turned down for military service during World War II because of the many broken bones he'd suffered playing hockey—was knocked cold by a check early in Game 7 of the semifinals against the Bruins. Richard (second from left) came to in the third period and returned to put the series-winner past goalie Jim Henry (far left) after an end-to-end rush.

1964

Bob Baun / Maple Leafs

The defenseman was stretchered off the ice after breaking his right leg in the third period of Game 6 against the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals. After getting shot up with Novocaine, he returned in overtime with the score tied 3--3 and scored the game-winner. "The adrenaline was running high, and I just wanted to get back onto the ice and help my team," he said. "The sooner the better."

1992

Mario Lemieux / Penguins

Playing with a broken hand and a back condition so bad that somebody else had to tie his skate laces, Lemieux won his second straight Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP while leading Pittsburgh to its second straight Stanley Cup. Super Mario led the postseason with 16 goals and 34 points, and the Penguins swept the Blackhawks in four games.

1998

Chris Pronger / Blues

The defenseman went into cardiac arrhythmia after he was struck in the chest by a slap shot from Detroit's Dmitri Mironov in Game 2 of the Western Conference semis. Pronger spent 24 hours on a heart monitor in a hospital but returned for Game 3, playing 41:35 in a double-OT loss. "The more intense the game, the greater the risk," he says. "You want to be in those situations."

2002

Steve Yzerman / Red Wings

Yzerman had almost no cartilage in his right knee the year he won his last Cup. "It was bone on bone," says Detroit GM Ken Holland. "Nothing else left. He got shot up and played. We needed him." In the following off-season, a surgeon cut his shin bone and added a wedge to redistribute the weight more evenly on the bad joint. Yzerman played for three more seasons.

PHOTOPhotograph by Frank Franklin II APFACE TIME Akeson took a double minor for this stick to the chops of Hagelin, who scored the final goal in New York's Game 1 win.PHOTOBRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (CELEBRATION)PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGESBLOODY BRUTAL Getzlaf took a puck to the face in Game 1, which left him with a nasty scar, but he returned to score a goal in Game 2.PHOTOTREVOR PAULHUS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOROGER ST. JEAN/LA PRESSEPHOTOLEE BALTERMAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPHOTOBRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGESTWO PHOTOSDAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPHOTOBRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (CAMPBELL)DOWN BUT NOT OUT Playoff injuries often fall into two categories: lower body, as in the case of Campbell's broken leg in 2013 (above, left); and upper body, as in the case of Stamkos (91), who got kneed in the head last week.PHOTOANDRE RINGUETTE/GETTY IMAGES (STAMKOS)[See caption above]