September 30, 2010
I sat on my couch and aimed my face at the TV for 16th consecutive hour, teeth wired together to keep my jaw immobile, body packed full of liquid Percocet.
My laptop was on my lap and the TV was playing old seasons of "Entourage," but I wasn't really involved in either of them; I was just there, existing, literally waiting for my injury to heal. What else could I do but set my brain to "hibernate" and wait for winter's chill to pass?
When my face shattered after a teammate's slap-bomb exploded into my jaw-line, I was allowed to be around the team, but didn't want to be. My face was swollen, I could barely mumble, and I was in a constant zone. At least with this injury people knew it was legit -- when I tore my MCL at the start of the season, I sat in the stands with no visible injury and sloughed off a few cheap shots about being soft. Pretty standard hockey-player stuff, but it gets trying after awhile.
When injuries nag, and time drags on, you drift from the team. It's not intentional, it's not a mean thing, it's just like a few decent people from high school -- you never made a conscious effort to cut them out of your life, you just...drift.
Teams take extended road trips with regularity, and can't justify the cost of a hotel room and meals for a guy who has no chance of getting on the ice in the next week, so you stay behind. Plus, as the staff is quick to assure you, you'll be better off staying home and being able to access the team gym, and if your injury permits, get a couple solo skates in during mornings.
For most pros, the problem is that whatever random city in North America (or beyond) they play in is really just a temporary parking spot for whatever belongings you managed to bring with them that year. It's not really home -- with longtime friends, family and a support network.
So you sit. You watch TV. You drink.
Why not? Guys with long-term injuries won't see game action for weeks, and the team isn't home for days, so you have to do something. If you're lucky enough to have been in a city long enough, maybe you've tracked down a local friend, or better yet, maybe there's another injured player on your team.
If you have neither? Good luck staying sane.
Pain is tolerable -- it's that mental side that takes its toll. It's not just time lost, it's opportunity cost. You only ask your body for so many good healthy years in a sport as fast and physical as hockey, and it can eat away at a guy watching his job being filled by a player who wasn't considered to be competition, but now suddenly is. You can slide down the depth chart without ever seeing a shift.
That's not to confuse low-grade self pity with high-grade depression. Marc Savard(notes) of the Boston Bruins is battling symptoms of post-traumatic concussion syndrome from the "legal" Matt Cooke(notes) hit last year, and one of his major symptoms is legit depression; as opposed to the kind of down-in-the-dumps funk my piddly injuries put me through.
Those demons are tougher to battle than anyone you encounter on the ice.
While Kyle Okposo(notes) and Mark Streit(notes) of the New York Islanders are enduring their months-long recoveries from serious shoulder surgeries, you can bet they'll go through some tough times too.
They're about to become forced-friends as simultaneous injury guys, which probably appeals to neither of them, given the decade-plus age difference. I'm sure they'll get along just fine, but my hunch is Streit isn't going over to Kyle's house to play Halo when the team is on the road.
Trying to earn your paycheck when you can't do what they pay you to do is frustrating, so they'll be doing everything they can to show they care -- doing lower body workouts, skating but not shooting, biking but not happy.
Professional hockey player becomes professional time-killer, a guy constantly clock watching with their life on pause, waiting for someone to hit "play" again.
Okposo will have to cast aside thoughts of progress, minimize his new role as captain, and try to -- if I may quote Too Short -- get in where he fit in.
When the time comes for Kyle, Mark and Marc to return, you can be certain they'll be champing at the bit to get back on the ice. But will they be excited to get back into physical confrontations? They won't easily forget the months they spent trying to recover from the last battle-wound-turned-battle-scar. They're bound to be hesitant.
On the road back to recovery, the costs of injury can be steep.
Justin Bourne blogs on Bourne's Blog. His columns and videos will appear on this site on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.