March 04, 2011
Hockey players, like most animals not smart enough to recognize that pain is your body's way of saying "stop doing that," have a reputation for bouncing back from in-game injuries and playing to the final buzzer.
It's not uncommon to find out after the game that a teammate's foot is broken or his shoulder is separated. I mean, he felt the pain, but what's he supposed to do, stop playing? Well, that'd be unacceptable.
So when it comes to stitches, forget about it.
Willie Mitchell(notes) took 54 last night thanks to frozen, propelled vulcanized rubber to the face, which probably felt like losing a snowball fight if snow were the consistency of cement. And like the trooper he is, he returned to the game ASAP and helped the Los Angeles Kings maintain the shutout and take a huge two points from the Phoenix Coyotes.
It was an unsurprising display of toughness -- I just can't imagine a scenario where a guy would be sitting in his stall half undressed with stitches in his face and his teammates, coming into the locker room after a game, would understand why he didn't return. That player would hear three or four sarcastic jokes, then get shredded behind his back. It's not like cuts stop your legs from working and, as the old hockey cliché goes, "the injury's a long way from your heart."
My junior coach used to say "tape an aspirin to it," whatever that means.
The protocol expected by your teammates is simple: When that puck or stick or fist or skate or elbow first hits your face, you start with damage control, assuming there's blood pooling. If it's a light bleed, then you're supposed to damn well get up and finish your shift, or at least get to the bench. It's a team game, and you writhing on the ice isn't helping our team, dude. Deal with it when you get off, using your fully healthy legs.
In the event that there is significant blood, you assess the situation - the "where from" and "how bad" naturally come first. It's not until after when you're sewn up and sit down that you notice all your limbs intact and think "well ... really no reason I can't go back out and play." And there really isn't one.
Getting to that thought from the initial injury never takes too long. When you walk back into the medical room for the zippers, I swear it's the highlight of the doctor's day. I've never had a doctor who seemed to be unhappy that they had to assess and sew a guy up. It's usually a casual, smiling "let's have a look at that there, shall we?" followed up by a slew of bad jokes about not being pretty anyway so the cut doesn't matter. Then they rush you back to the bench. Even the more precautious types know stitches aren't exactly tough to play through.
And those guys they hire are good -- between the 50-ish zips to my chin, eyebrow, nose and cheekbone, I could easily look a little Frankenstein-y, but most of them are fairly unnoticeable.
The best development in getting guys back out onto the ice quick seems like it was developed at the absolute pinnacle of lazy doctor work -- Dermabond.
"Dermabond," if you break the word down, bonds your epidermis; as in, it's superglue for your skin. And since it's pain free and fantastic in every way, it's become a more common quick fix in the trainer's room.
All of this can be done in an intermission, and you're ready to rock again. But when it's a broken foot/separated shoulder injury, intermission is your worst enemy. Not only do things tighten up, but it gives the doctors time to recommend you sit out -- and speaking of old adages, ask for forgiveness not permission, right?
Those injuries usually happen courtesy some high impact moment. Between that and the damage incurred, your body provides you with what must be an ungodly amount of adrenaline, and by the time you get to the bench, the initial sting has worn off. As long as you keep playing, you can usually make it work. Worst thing you can do is think about it or talk to the trainer, so as the expectation goes, soldier on, soldier.
When you know something is wrong it can be tough to tell the extent of the injury, so you have to adjust your game a little bit. You just have to convince yourself to finish the game and figure it out after. Later that night and the next morning, the true extent of your injury will be revealed. I have memories of opening my eyes in a hotel bed with dread, knowing I was about to play the "how much shoulder pain?" game.
You can go from scoring the game-winner on a ceiling-scraping slapshot to not being able to lift your arm over your head in a span of twelve hours. That's when fans go "it can't be that bad, he returned to the game."
But it can be that bad.
It's just a part of the life, and a part of the culture. And save for head shots, I don't think it's such a bad thing. The simple fact is, you occasionally get hurt when you play hockey, you just pray it's shoulders and knees and not the grey matter. When you decide to put on the skates and play competitive hockey, you're well aware you're walking into a tough game. So be tough.