The New York Rangers announced star goalie Henrik Lundqvist wouldn't be in net versus Boston Wednesday due to a neck injury related to the throat injury he suffered Saturday against Carolina. Which makes the decision to play him Monday against Florida highly questionable, and another indictment of hockey's glorification of players "pushing through" injuries.
Lundqvist insisted on staying in the game after his mask was pulled up and he was hit directly in the throat by a wrist shot from Hurricanes winger Brad Malone:
After the Blueshirts emerged 4-1 winners over Carolina, Lundqvist told reporters he felt lightheaded and had headaches the rest of the game. But he trusted the opinions of the the team's medical staff who cleared him to play, and so did head coach Alain Vigneault.
"Rammer (Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay) and our doc were on the ice," Vigneault said afterward, "and Rammer came back and said he was fine and I didn’t hear anything in between periods. So I trust our medical staff.”
Trust is a problematic word when you're talking about professional athletes, doctors and trainers, and the relentless drive to win. The player trusts the doctor and trainer to look after him, and the doctor and trainer trust the players to fully report their injuries. Guess where the potential for problems, including the short-and-long-term exacerbation of injuries, lives? That's right – within that trust. Athletes under-reporting problematic signs and symptoms is deeply disturbing to neurologists and medical professionals, and when team trainers and doctors are too willing to either quickly turn the other way when an injured player waves them away, or tells them they're "fine" despite a collision that screams out they're not fine, those medical professionals are essentially ceding control of the process to the athletes in the name of competition. They're part of a hockey culture that encourages and celebrates players shrugging off serious injuries to stay in the game. And when they're are employed by the same people who are paying those athletes to win at all costs, there's a sinister synergy at play that is increasing the potential for disaster.
This is why more people are wondering why the NHL doesn't follow the lead of professional boxing and mixed martial arts, which for decades have used independent doctors to determine athletes' ability to perform. Imagine if the reverse were true and boxing and MMA fighting companies decided to follow the NHL's lead. Imagine the outcry if referees, doctors or trainers allowed boxers or mixed martial art fighters to decide how fit they were to carry on from round to round. The public would be repulsed by the clear abandonment of responsibility by people making money off these athletes. Yet somehow, it's perfectly OK for the hockey promoter (in this case, the Rangers and the league as a whole) to yield to the whims and wishes of players, simply because they're emotional about winning?
Sorry, but that's not nearly a good enough reason. Yes, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr has been quick to point out players have the right to seek out second opinions on their health, but you know what happens when you're a player who does that sort of thing? You get the Eric Lindros treatment. You get painted, either explicitly and publicly or behind closed doors, as someone who isn't a team player. The pressure to conform at hockey's highest levels has always been enormous, and that goes double when it comes to battling through injuries. And because of that ongoing romanticization of the NHLer who'll do anything to win, it's now more or less an expectation they'll always do that.
You can see why players and fans are so easily seduced by that concept, but that doesn't make it right. The responsibility of doctors and trainers is not to be a friend to and enabler of any player's dream of winning a Stanley Cup. Their responsibility is to the players and their families, and that often means delivering news those players don't want to hear. That means caution and safety before sorriness. That means taking measures to ensure the win-at-all-costs guys won't pay all the costs later in their lives.
In Lundqvist's case, that meant removing him from the game immediately after his injury sitting him out of the game against Florida for precautionary reasons. Doing so might not have ensured he was in the lineup against Boston Wednesday, but it wouldn't have caused him any additional injury. And now, if he's out for an extended period, that collective willingness to play through anything could very well have cost the Rangers their most important player, and cost Rangers season-ticket-holders the chance to watch him play.
And for what? For somebody's antiquated notion of what it is to be tough? Please. We know players are tough. Lundqvist has to be tough just to stand between those pipes and face pucks flying at him at astonishing speeds. He doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, and neither does any injured NHLer. And the sooner the league stops accepting players' words as the final word in the conversation over their physical well-being, the sooner performers will be healthier and the product better.