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STITCHES IN TIME
Michael Farber
October 12, 1998
Split lip? Separated shoulder? Busted ribs? No problem. Playing in pain has always been an essential part of hockey's culture
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October 12, 1998

Stitches In Time

Split lip? Separated shoulder? Busted ribs? No problem. Playing in pain has always been an essential part of hockey's culture

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Buckner's candid glimpse was rare because hockey usually masks its pain. The weekly NHL injury reports are like Stephen King novels: gruesome but fictional. "If it says doubtful, knee" says Montreal's King, "it could just as soon mean shoulder and the guy's going to play. If guys know where a player hurts, they might go after that area, finish a check a little harder."

The subterfuge has led to what journalists call the Diagonal Rule: If a player says his right ankle hurts, he probably has an injured left shoulder. When a CBC reporter waylaid Lenczner in a hallway during the 1996 Canadiens-New York Rangers playoff series and asked about center Saku Koivu's injury—he had sprained his left ankle—the man of science looked at the camera, gulped and said, "Right groin."

"The groin," King says, "is all-purpose."

Today's players make more money than their predecessors and have a strong union, factors that might encourage them to renounce hockey's heritage of pain. Certainly the medical attention is better. The trainers, whose forebears used to tape sticks as well as ankles, are resolutely professional, and the doctors are more sensitive to injuries, especially those caused by blows to the head. "We called them headaches," Darryl Sutter says. "Now they're called concussions."

Given generational differences, it would be astounding if Philadelphia Flyers general manager Bob Clarke was not frustrated by the number of games his franchise player, Eric Lindros, has missed in six seasons—102 of 462, or 22% of the Flyers' total. Clarke, who in 1973-74 witnessed teammate Barry Ashbee play most of the season wearing a football-style protective collar because of a neck injury, publicly discussed his captain's leadership this summer, including how Lindros needed to set the tone by outworking everyone. It wasn't much of a reach to discern a veiled reference to injuries.

But the imperative to play hurt is alive and well, and most players remain cartoonishly tough. "It's still that going-to-war mentality," the Flames' Simpson says. "Whatever it takes."

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