Hockey is not Heroic

So, I’ve already talked about how hockey is weird and, in more of the same, Radko Gudas is now a Washington Capital and I cycled through the five stages of acceptance pretty quickly on that one.

As well as being weird, hockey is also dangerous.

I mean, obviously: It’s a group of large men with knives on their feet, wielding large sticks, and occasionally punching each other. Even though the punching part isn’t, strictly speaking, legal, and players get penalised for fighting, it’s still accommodated in the game. This post isn’t about fighting, though. This is about the culture surrounding injuries in hockey.

Historically, when players battled through serious injury, they were praised and it’s easy enough to say that, well, they didn’t know any better. The players didn’t know any better and the medical staff didn’t know any better. Unfortunately, in the Year of our Lord 2019, players are still being praised for playing with serious injuries.

We learn about these injuries every year, after the playoffs. During the regular season, and even more during the post-season, teams are very cagey about their players’ injuries. ‘Upper body’ or ‘lower body’ can cover any manner of sins. After the playoffs, though, we get the truth. Per Boston’s 98.5: The Sportshub, the list of injuries to Bruins players alone is pretty horrifying.

The most well known is that of Zdeno Chara, the gigantic defenceman, and the captain of the Bruins. In Game 5 of the Final, Chara suffered a broken jaw. Now, as I regularly say: I’m not an orthopaedic surgeon but.

The force required to break a human bone is large. The mandible – or lower jaw – is attached to the skull by the right and left temporomandibular joints, rather like a hinge. These two joints do not operate independently of each other, of course; they move the mandible up and down, and very slightly from left to right. Bilateral fractures of the jaw occur in more than half of cases and it makes sense: the force of impact has to be dispersed somewhere and the mandible is a rigid bone, not so great at dispersing that force without fracturing. The symptoms of a broken jaw includes pain (obviously) and inability to speak or eat. For the record, Zdeno Chara had all of these symptoms and still continued to play. He was wearing a full face cage but what do you think would have happened if he’d received another blow to the skull? Where would the path of least resistance be, to disperse that force? Perhaps those pre-existing fractures?

And yet, somehow, this isn’t as bad as the 2013 playoffs, when Patrice Bergeron played with a separated shoulder (bad), broken ribs (worse) and a punctured lung (actually terrible).

The only 2019 Bruins playoff injury to rival Chara’s is, probably, Noel Acciari’s sternum. It was broken, in case you were wondering, and I doubt the integrity of regular hockey chest pads to prevent further injury, in the case of another body hit. What further injury? Oh, you know. Just bruising of the underlying heart.

Now, I don’t necessarily blame the hockey players themselves. They’re not doctors, after all, and denial can be pretty powerful in the face of injury. They’re under enormous pressure to go out and perform and, for most of them, winning a Stanley Cup is the ultimate aim and it’s all very No Ragrets. I’m not sure I blame the fans, either, although it gets a bit wearisome as a doctor to read the dubious opinions of those who seem to think that acknowledging an injury is somehow soft. Well. You know. The human body is pretty soft and very easily damaged.

So who do we blame? Team doctors? (Apparently Chara was advised not to return to Game Five.) Individual teams? The entire league? Yes, probably.

These men are millionaires, yes, but they give their physical prime to play a sport that entertains us. Their salary is compensation for their relatively short careers but the potential for long term complications is huge. I haven’t even touched on hockey and concussion (believe me, that’s a future post) .

Playing through these injuries is not heroic and this culture of acceptance needs to change, and it needs to change effectively, so that players are not tempted to hide their symptoms, or cheat on concussion tests. As fans, we need not to become desensitised to these injuries. We need to be shocked and horrified because it is not normal.

It is not heroic.

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