ST. PAUL, Minn. – Hits to the head remain the greatest present and future danger for professional hockey players.
But don’t forget about the feet.
Each NHL season, dozens of games are lost by players who take a slap shot to the skate. The lucky player gets away with a bruise, while others limp off with broken bones. There are foot protectors available, typically made out of super-strong plastics like carbon fiber or even Kevlar. They vary in size, ranging from designs that encase the entire skate to those that only cover the top.
The problem? Many players don’t want to wear them, part of the time-worn conflict between safety and toughness, stubbornness and style. Foot protectors aren’t required, so teams can’t force them on.
“Then again, if you get a slap shot off your foot, you don’t break your foot,” Minnesota defenceman Marco Scandella said. “So, pros and cons to everything. It’s extra equipment, you know? Some guys don’t like wearing extra stuff.”
Dallas defenceman Alex Goligoski is among them.
“You don’t notice them 95 per cent of the time. But the one time that you go to turn and it catches, or someone’s stick gets caught in it, that could be a problem,” he said.
Using the body as a blocker is common in hockey, with players sprawling to keep the puck from getting to the net or another player. Columbus coach Todd Richards said the league wants to protect its players and the foot devices can help.
Zach Parise, the Wild’s leading scorer at the time, took a puck off his foot Nov. 25. He sat out one game and returned for the next, but over 12 games of playing through the pain he had only four goals and one assist. Then Parise was shut down. He missed 14 more games.
While Parise was recovering, defenceman Jared Spurgeon was hurt the same way Jan. 2 and has been out since. Captain Mikko Koivu broke his ankle Jan. 4, also by a speeding puck. He’s expected back soon, but last Thursday was his 12th straight absence.
None of those players was wearing foot protectors at the time. General manager Chuck Fletcher has been encouraging the Wild to use them, even before this fluky rash of foot injuries, but he understands the hesitation. The Wild recently had players fitted for custom models that are designed to be more comfortable.
“There’s a physical part of this, but there’s also a psychological part. You don’t want a player going out there feeling like he’s not 100 per cent,” Fletcher said.
One complaint about standard foot protectors is they can cause the skate to catch on the ice during sharp turns. Another problem is the unpredictability of the puck.
“It explodes off of them,” Scandella said. “So if you block a shot, you don’t know. You try to keep the puck in on the blue line, and it hits it, I’m telling you, it’s wild. At least the regular ones. They have bubbles. So when it compresses the bubble, it shoots off like harder than the shot came in.”
Brenden Dillon, who leads the Stars in blocked shots, wears foot protectors. His cover three-quarters of the skate, and he said they don’t hinder his movement.
“I think of them as bullet-proof,” Dillon said. “I feel 100 per cent confident wearing them. Before I was trying to get my stick in the way or my glove in the way. I would suggest more guys should wear them.”
Buffalo rookie defenceman Mark Pysyk is another user.
“It’s just like anything: if you wear it for a few practices, a few games, you get used to it. And you wouldn’t realize that they’re there once you start wearing them,” Pysyk said.
Successful shot-blocking requires strong instinct but also unwavering courage. The skill, too, is as important as ever.
“It’s definitely a talent. You can’t just lay down in front of a shooter. Players are too good now. They’ll just skate around you,” Dillon said.
Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf, not known for his defence, hurt his foot blocking a shot recently and had to sit out a game.
“Guys have to be willing to pay the price for it. When you’re trying to win games and keep things going the way they should, we’ve got guys that are willing to step in front of shots,” Getzlaf said. “A lot of guys do it more than I do on our back end.”
The blue liners, of course, bear the brunt of it.
“If you’re not going to score 40 you might have to chip in in other ways,” Wild defenceman Keith Ballard said. “It doesn’t really matter where it hits you; generally it hurts. But again I think the mentality of most guys who kill penalties is I’m willing to get in front of this Shea Weber one-timer, even though it might kill me.”
AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in Anaheim, Calif., Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., and AP freelance writer Lary Bump in Frisco, Texas, contributed to this report.