NEW YORK – Just as no kid wants to walk through the halls of high school with a “kick me” sign taped to his back, NHL teams have gone to new lengths this season to eliminate inviting targets and protect injured players.
Armed with specific knowledge about where an opponent aches, might a hockey player take a run at the most vulnerable part of his adversary’s body? General managers believe the threat is real, so they’ve taken a big step toward keeping injury information hidden.
“There is logic to that,” Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano said. “If we know that someone is a little hampered or something is slowing them up, certainly you’re aware of that. People will take liberty with that, just because at that point you’re just doing anything to win.”
It had become common practice during the playoffs to hear that players were hobbled by vague, undisclosed upper and lower body injuries – problems that could be anything from a concussion to a broken toe.
During last season’s Stanley Cup finals, GMs voted to allow teams to withhold specifics of what is ailing players during the regular season. Teams now have the choice about how forthcoming they want to be.
Clubs are required to announce that a player is expected to miss a game due to injury, or that he won’t return to one he left early. Providing false information is prohibited, along with issuing misleading statements.
“The extent of the disclosure of the particular injury has evolved over time to the point where some of the policies just weren’t working and getting a little absurd,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “It’s a credit to our players that our guys are so passionate about the game that they will play hurt.
“We think after we’ve reviewed what has and hasn’t gone on over the last few years, as long as there’s an accurate disclosure that a player is injured and won’t be playing, announcing the extent of the injury – and it must be accurate – is up to the club.”
From players to team executives, the reason given for the change is that it’s in the best interest of those who are risking their health on the ice.
There is a fine line that must be toed, however, as the public shells out large sums of money in a depressed economy to attend games. Fans want to see their favourite players, and if they’re not on the ice, want to know why.
“If you’re paying $100 to go to the game would you rather (an injured player) get run and miss the next 20 games?” Islanders GM Garth Snow said. “I understand the frustration.”
How much does a fan deserve to know about a star who wasn’t well enough to be in the lineup? Is “upper body” specific enough, or in this information age when every news nugget is gold, does the paying public have the right to get the details about a hand injury or concussion that has sidelined a star?
“It’s a tough subject,” said Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who was hurt earlier this week. “Being a player, I think I’m in favour of it because there are times my injury is listed and it’s something that other teams are going to take advantage of.
“As long as the fan knows a player is not playing that night, the actual injury I don’t think should really make a difference. I understand the reason behind it, but if you know the day of that a player is not playing, that should be enough.”
In times gone by, it was.
Paul Holmgren has seen the old and the new, first as a player on Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies and now as GM of the Flyers.
Life was certainly simpler before the advent of sports talk radio, ever-changing websites, and the saturation of blogs. Then, announcing that a player was hurt was enough.
“There was basically just the print media, and depending on what team you were with, limited TV coverage,” Holmgren said. “Today, the information that is available through a lot of different resources has pushed it to another level. It certainly wasn’t around back when I played. It was almost like, ‘Who cares?’ Now everybody wants to know.”
And maybe no one is more eager for that knowledge than desperate opponents, who admittedly will seek any way to get an edge.
Hitting someone where they’re hurt seems to go hand-in-hand with hockey’s rugged image, even if it’s a myth.
The roughness of the game, the toughness of players who often don’t miss a shift even after taking several stitches to patch up a bloodied face, and the ever-present chance of a toe-to-toe fight, are exactly what draw many fans to arenas or TV sets.
“It’s an honourable league to the point where we don’t go out looking to hurt people if there is something wrong with them,” New York Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “It’s a spontaneous, impulsive game that has tons of physical play to it.
“Guys that are aching and sore are going to be reminded of that through the course of a hockey game. But you’re not going to submarine a guy because he’s got a bad knee, and you’re not going after a guy’s head, you hope, because he’s had a concussion problem. You play hockey.”
Maybe – but maybe not.
During last year’s Stanley Cup finals, Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen returned from a concussion in Game 2 and took a fist in the face from tough Pittsburgh Penguins veteran Gary Roberts.
The logic is often explained that if you are well enough to take the ice, you are assumed to be healthy enough to deal with whatever physical punishment that might be dished out. Whether Roberts went for the head because he knew Franzen had just come back from a concussion wasn’t known.
Some believe that was the case.
“Detroit had a player with a head injury, and it was made public. A player on the Penguins took a run at that injury,” said Snow, a former NHL goalie. “I had a player who had a leg injury and I told him what our statement to the media would be. The question right back at me was, ‘Why would you do that to me?”‘
The NFL takes a different approach when dealing with injured players.
Several times a week, the NFL issues an injury report that is explicit about what injuries players have, how much they practised, and the likelihood of them playing in the upcoming game.
So not only is the information out there for players who will sit out, but it exists for those who are even probable to play.
Good luck, Brian Westbrook, as you try to run the ball on a bad knee when the Philadelphia Eagles play the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship game Sunday.
“Let’s not kid ourselves why the NFL report is out there. It’s for gambling,” New Jersey Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner said. “The NHL doesn’t have that issue where Vegas really cares as much. Hockey is not a betting sport.”
Don’t be so sure.
“People ask me who is in or who is not, who is the starting goalie,” Modano said. “It’s more or less for the betting purposes. I feel there is no real reason to get that information out there if you don’t have to.”