The gamesmanship of the NHL playoffs began even before the games, when Islanders center Alexei Yashin was held out of New York's final four regular-season matches, and several practices, with what the team called an "injured groin"—a catchall phrase that in hockey parlance might translate to "broken toe" or "wrenched neck." "If a team says it's a guy's foot, it's probably his shoulder," says Red Wings forward Kris Draper of the NHL's widely accepted practice of dissembling about the disabled.
Perhaps Yashin, who struggled in New York's first two postseason games against the Maple Leafs, really did have a groin ache. ("I'm not allowed to say," he says.) Perhaps Leafs center Robert Reichel really did miss a game with a "leg injury" Perhaps Devils center Joe Nieuwendyk really did have a "stomach virus" when he sat out the opener against the Hurricanes. There's no way to know. The league's official injury list features more misdirection than a David Copperfield show. At week's end the Avalanche's Milan Hejduk was out "indefinitely" with an "abdominal strain." Avalanche coach Bob Hartley kept telling the media, "As soon as we know anything, you'll be the first to know," which invariably broke everyone up.
The motive behind the mendacity is clear: Teams don't want opponents to know where their players are most vulnerable. "I won't necessarily try to injure a guy if I know where he's hurt," said the Canadiens' fang-toothed forward Doug Gilmour last Friday. Then he paused, and he chuckled. "But will I give him an extra shot where it hurts? Sure."
When the Stars were playing the Avalanche in the 1999 playoffs, Dallas intelligence revealed that Colorado's Peter Forsberg had a bum left shoulder. "We knew he had it, so we gave him that extra little bump," says Mike Keane, men a Stars forward. Forsberg had surgery after the series.
The NHL's policy requires teams to announce the "approximate nature" of the injury, but it also has a loophole that you could drive a Zamboni through: If a team fears that revealing an injury might endanger a player, it may "provide a more general overview of the player's status."
"Teams can basically say whatever they want," says NHL spokesman Frank Brown. "They just have to say something."
How different things are in pro football, the other major sport in which an injured body part might be legally attacked. The NFL makes teams file two comprehensive injury reports a week, hits insubordinate clubs with fines of up to $25,000 and does it in the name of what spokesman Greg Aiello calls "maintaining the integrity of the game." Integrity means making sure all the high rollers know what's up. "[Disclosing injuries] eliminates opportunity for someone to benefit from inside information, as it might relate to gambling activities," Aiello says.
The NHL, which attracts little betting action, preaches no such honesty. Sometimes, though, people get their lies crossed. In last year's postseason, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman declared that Steve Yzerman was nursing a sore leg, only to have Yzerman tell reporters, "I have a broken finger." After the playoffs Yzerman revealed he'd also had a fractured right fibula.
Whatever the facts about this year's injuries, the truth won't prevail until after the playoffs. In the meantime we can only hope for slips such as the one in 1990, when Islanders center Brent Sutter missed practice during a series against the Rangers. Sutter had been bashed to the ice several times in the previous game, but when reporters asked what ailed him, he fell silent and excused himself to huddle with the team trainer. Moments later he returned. "I have a cold," he announced.