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On Patrice Bergeron and playing through injury in Stanley Cup Final: Where's the line?

How far is too far? I don’t know. Did Patrice Bergeron go too far by playing in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final with a broken rib, torn cartilage, torn muscles and a separated shoulder – suffering a punctured lung at some point, putting him in the hospital for observation? Were the Boston Bruins negligent for allowing him on the ice? I don’t know that, either.

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Patrice Bergeron deserves respect for playing hurt, but did he risk too much? (USA Today)

But I know this: We ought to be asking. We ought to be asking about other players and other teams, too, including Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw and how the Chicago Blackhawks handled their head injuries. All of us in the media – myself included – ought to be asking ourselves about how and why we glorify these guys for playing through some of the things they do. All of us in the hockey culture ought to ask ourselves about how we encourage it, if the cumulative effect can end up putting players in real danger.

When does toughness become recklessness? Where is the line?

There is hurt, and then there is injured. There is limb, and then there is life. There are sacrifices you make willingly for your team and your teammates and your dreams, because you owe it to the owner paying you millions and the guy next to you enduring his own pain and the years you spent working for this, and then there is the big-picture perspective. It’s only hockey. “Because it’s the Cup” is a marketing slogan, not a justification.

[Related: Patrice Bergeron's punctured lung] 

We can respect the hell out of Bergeron and those like him while questioning whether they need to be smarter or better protected from themselves. Bergeron left game Game 5 on Saturday night in Chicago and was taken to the hospital. Bruins coach Claude Julien revealed the next day only that he had a “body” injury. It seemed funny at the time – another coach being coy, another player acting like the Black Knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” It’s just a flesh wound.

But it doesn’t seem funny now. Bergeron played Game 6 on Monday night in Boston, and he said after the Bruins’ elimination loss he had suffered a broken rib, torn cartilage and torn muscles Saturday night – and then had suffered a separated shoulder on top of that on Monday.

“It’s the Stanley Cup Final,” said Bergeron on Monday night. “Everyone’s banged up. Everyone wants to help the team, and obviously I couldn’t do that in Game 5. It was mostly because they were worried about my spleen being hurt, so that’s why we had to go to the hospital. But everything was fine. So it was just the ribs and the muscles and the soft tissue.”

Oh, “just” the ribs and the muscles and the soft tissue. That kind of casual comment is why we love hockey players. But then came the separated shoulder in the first period, and Bergeron went to the hospital again after the game. It was discovered he had what general manager Peter Chiarelli described as “a very small hole” in a lung. He was held for observation. He was still there Wednesday.

Julien and Chiarelli said in a news conference that the Bruins don’t know how or when Bergeron suffered the punctured lung. They don’t know if the hole was caused by a painkilling injection or by the broken rib. They don’t think it was caused by the needle, and they don’t think it occurred during the game, because in either case Bergeron would have felt it right away and wouldn’t have been able to play. But again, they don’t know.

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Michal Handzus and Bergeron were among many players in the Cup final who were more than a bit banged up. (AP)

Chiarelli said “most likely it was from the rib” and “it may have happened after.” But that’s just as scary, if not scarier. If Bergeron was so fragile his broken rib could have punctured his lung after the game, what was the risk during the game? Did the painkiller affect his ability to feel a problem?

Sorry, but something’s wrong.

There might have been something wrong with Toews and Shaw gutting it out, too. Toews stayed on the bench in the third period of Game 5. Credit the Blackhawks for keeping him there even though he was asking to take a shift. But should he have been in a quiet room instead, and should he have come back in Game 6? Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he got his “bell rung,” code for a concussion. Shaw took a shot to the face from point-blank range and lay motionless on the ice in Game 6, then got some stitches and came back. Did he go through the proper concussion protocol? Were corners cut because of the situation?

Look, the NHL is a men’s league. The players are grown men. The medical personnel are responsible for making accurate diagnoses and informing the coaches and players of the risks, and as far as I know, they do the right thing. I am not a doctor and will not question their integrity. Chiarelli said Bergeron knew he was risking a punctured lung. The players are ultimately responsible for deciding whether to accept the risks. Whether a player decides to play or not, it takes guts.

Chicago’s Marian Hossa pulled out of Game 3 after warm-ups, and he was blasted by former Blackhawks star Tony Amonte on Comcast Sports Network New England: “You’re in the Stanley Cup Final. You play until you can’t play anymore. … He’s not the guy with the highest pain threshold in the NHL.” Hossa played Games 4, 5 and 6. Turns out he had a back problem that caused numbness in his right leg. It wasn’t what he felt but what he couldn’t.

[Watch: Bruins defenseman 'erases' playoff beard away]

That’s why we have to be careful about judging toughness or even performance or coaching strategy. We don’t know what these guys are going through until it’s over, sometimes not even then. Quenneville said Bryan Bickell suffered a Grade 2 knee sprain at the end of the Western Conference final. That’s why Quenneville spread out the talent on his lines in the first three games of the Cup final, because he didn’t want Bickell playing hard minutes against Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. Turns out Bickell improved by Game 4, when Quenneville reunited the Bickell-Toews-Patrick Kane line and threw it at Chara, and turns out Chara slowed because of a hip flexor he wouldn’t talk about.

Toughness is inherent in hockey’s appeal. Part of the reason we care so much is because the players care so much, and part of the reason we gawk like the game is a car crash is because the game is like a car crash. If Gregory Campbell will finish a shift on a broken leg, if Nathan Horton will wear a brace to keep his shoulder from popping out until off-season surgery, if … well, there have been many stories of players abusing their bodies, and I have written more than a few of them myself. They are part of what make the NHL great – but only to a point.

Let’s not pretend they don’t pile up. Let’s not pretend they don’t create pressure to prove your manhood to a ridiculous degree. Let’s not pretend they might not lead someone to do something stupid. Let’s not call these men warriors, because even if the Bruins awarded a U.S. Army Ranger jacket to their player of the game, hockey is not war.

Let’s stop and think.

“I’ve never been a coach to push guys to play, because if they don’t want to, I don’t want them in my lineup,” said Julien on Sunday, between Games 5 and 6, between Bergeron’s hospital visits. “So the guys that you see in our lineup are guys that want to play. This is where they deserve a lot of credit, because if they can and if medically they’re cleared and they want to, I’m not going to hold them back.”

Sometimes, though, maybe someone should.

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