More? O.K., let's put our cards on the table and play an imaginary high-stakes poker game in which pain is the currency. You put up, say, an exhausted and flu-ridden Michael Jordan in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, and we'll see your Michael and raise you a Bobby Baun. Baun, a defenseman for the Maple Leafs, scored the winning goal in Game 6 of the 1964 Cup finals at 2:43 of overtime after suffering a broken tibia midway through the third period. After the game he returned to Toronto, iced his leg for two days, limped into Maple Leaf Gardens 90 minutes before Game 7, got his leg taped and asked doctors to freeze it every 10 minutes. Baun played a regular shift in a 4-0 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, but he celebrated winning the Stanley Cup in the back of an ambulance. His leg was in a cast for six weeks.
As the Edmonton Oilers trudged down a corridor at the Nassau Coliseum to their team bus on May 17, 1983, they saw something that lit the bulb over their collective heads and changed the direction of their franchise. An hour earlier the New York Islanders had beaten Edmonton 4-2 to win their fourth straight Stanley Cup, and through an open door the Oilers, on the cusp of their own dynasty, saw that their conquerors had ice packs on just about every inch of their personal real estate.
"About four of them, including Dog [Islanders wing Duane Sutter], had knee operations after [the series], but they all had played," says Calgary coach Brian Sutter, Duane's brother. "The point is, there's a price to be paid to win, and playing hurt is part of the price. The Oilers had aches and pains, but they didn't have aches and pains like the Islanders, and the Islanders won. Wayne Gretzky told me about it at a Canada Cup once. He said the Oilers figured it all out after that."
The hockey ethos that exalts playing with pain is no more complicated than a kid's refusal to say uncle in the schoolyard. "At times your manhood is up for grabs," Montreal assistant coach Dave King says. "Playing hurt is a status thing. It's the simplest way of getting the respect of teammates, opponents, coaches. As coaches, we're always judging players. After a hard check or a big-time slash, is he the kind of guy who gives up on the play and heads to the bench or does he stay with the play? After a guy blocks a shot, does he lie on the ice or get back up? Pain is one of hockey's measuring sticks."
There are some who come up small, branded as "soft" even though their pain threshold, not their courage, might be lacking. Defenseman Vladimir Malakhov missed Game 4 of the Canadiens' second-round series against the Buffalo Sabres last spring because of neck pain, an injury that was privately questioned by players in his own dressing room. The previous spring Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, a two-time Hart Trophy winner, underwent his own trial-by-raised-eyebrow when he skated off the ice during a playoff game with a real, albeit relatively minor, knee injury.
Early in his career with Montreal, Claude Lemieux, now with the Colorado Avalanche, played two positions—right wing and prone. After contact he would often writhe on the ice, trying to draw penalties. But his Canadiens teammates and coaches took umbrage at his conduct because his behavior made a mockery of the protocol of the game. When Lemieux lingered horizontally during Game 1 of the 1989 finals, coach Pat Burns had had enough. He grabbed trainer Gaétan Lefebvre's sweater before Lefebvre could hop over the boards and growled, "Let him lie there." Burns benched Lemieux for Game 2.
"They both had a bad habit of lying on the ice every time they got hit," says Brian Sutter, who would not name names but was clearly talking about Lemieux and his younger brother, Jocelyn, one of Sutter's former St. Louis Blues teammates. "I'll never forget the last time it happened because it involved me and Dougie Gilmour [page 104]. The first time, the two of us let our trainer [Norm Mackie] go out, but we said to tell [Jocelyn], 'Get up because I'm never coming out again.' Sure enough, next game [Jocelyn] goes down again and lies there, and we wouldn't let Normie off the bench. We just held the gate shut."
Brian and his brother Darryl, the San Jose Sharks' coach, learned the code of hockey when they were youngsters sitting in the lobby of the rink in tiny Viking (pop. 1,200) on one of those wintry Alberta days when you need a block heater for your car and your lungs. The boys' feet were achingly cold. Their father, Louis, noticed tears on their cheeks and offered the only counsel he ever gave his sons about the game: If I ever see you cry in a rink again, you're through.
They understood. The NHL's six Sutter brothers, Brian, Darryl, Duane, Brent, Rich and Ron, grew up 10 miles outside Viking on a farm, where workaday hurts were shrugged off. Hockey's roots are, in part, rural—tough Canadian kids from small towns dominated the game until the 1970s—and many players shared the kind of rub-dirt-on-it mentality that would warm any HMO manager's heart. When Mark Messier's high stick gave Rich Sutter a concussion and knocked out four teeth a few years ago (the Vancouver Canucks trainer literally scraped black tape from Messier's stick off the roof of Sutter's mouth), doctors had to restrain Sutter from returning to the ice.
The Sutter brothers are old enough to recall the six-team NHL, a virtually closed shop with 110 jobs in which even a solid veteran like Baun feared that injury could lead to unemployment. When Brian, the eldest, was a rookie in 1976-77, there were 18 teams, 60% of what the league will have when its expansion is finished in 2000. "It was a tremendous privilege for us to play in the NHL," says Darryl, who spent eight seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I played with broken ribs two or three times. If your rib goes through your lung, that's one thing. If not, you freeze it and play. The guy who plays hurt is bringing leadership to the locker room because other guys follow. I was friendly with some of the Cubs in the early '80s, and I remember Bill Buckner coming into our room and not believing the injuries we play through."