Saturday, April 09, 2011
NHL Playoffs: Pain Don't Hurt This Time of Year
The ankle inside Bob Baun’s skating boot was broken. It is the hockey player’s creed to never be helped from the ice unless amputation is on tap, but that’s what happened to Baun on April 23, 1964 at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium—he was the wounded warrior and his Toronto Maple Leaf teammates were his platoon members carrying him off the battlefield. This was Game 6 of the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings led the Leafs, 3 games to 2, and were poised to win the Cup on their home ice. As Baun, one of the Maple Leafs’ best defensemen, was being removed from action, it looked like the hockey gods were smiling down on the Red Wings. But this is hockey, and it was the Stanley Cup Finals, and Bob Baun’s ankle was broken, not missing, so Baun did what the hockey player does, as much as his body is willing—he returned to the game, his boot taped to his ankle like a tourniquet. The game went into overtime, with every rush up the ice by the Red Wings being potentially the one that could lead to the Cup-winning goal. The old red barn on Grand River and McGraw shook every time the vulcanized rubber disc would be flipped into the Toronto zone. Overtime hockey is heart-stopping, gut-churning stuff. Never has a term been so aptly coined as “sudden death.” If the winning goal comes from the visitors, the air is sucked out of the arena like crumbs into a vacuum cleaner. Baun, skating on his wobbly, broken ankle, stopped the puck just inside the Red Wings’ blue line and slapped a shot toward the Detroit net. It was hardly a rocket, but the puck had eyes and it found the twine behind goalie Terry Sawchuk. The Maple Leafs celebrated like mad on the Olympia ice, the Detroit crowd dazed and silent. Baun could barely stand as his teammates mobbed him. The series was tied, a decisive Game 7 necessary. The Maple Leafs won Game 7 in Toronto, 4-0, and snatched the Stanley Cup from under the Red Wings’ noses—thanks largely to the one-legged Bob Baun. The Red Wings’ Brent Gilchrist wasn’t one-legged in 1998; he was no-groined. It was another example of the playoff hockey player gone mad. Gilchrist was 31 years old, in his 10th NHL season, and his first with the Red Wings as the 1998 playoffs dawned. Late in the season an old groin injury flared up inside Gilchrist, which didn’t hurt him unless he moved or breathed. Other than that, he was fine. The pain was excruciating. To a hockey player, a bad groin injury is like a sore throat for a giraffe, to borrow an old, weary joke. And Gilchrist had a bad one, alright. With every stride he took on skates, the groin screamed at him to stop. But these were the playoffs. Gilchrist had himself injected, in his groin, before every playoff game he played in that year with needles as long as Pinocchio’s nose in a game of liar’s poker. Even his fellow hockey warriors didn’t care to look when Gilchrist went into the trainer’s room for his pre-game treatment. Sometimes the shots would wear off and Gilchrist would have them done again between periods. He played in 15 of the Red Wings’ 22 playoff games in 1998, his groin on fire. His injury was so severe that Gilchrist only played in five games the following season. But the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1998, so the pain was worth it to Brent Gilchrist, who’d never won the Cup before. Steve Yzerman, on the other hand, was already a two-time Stanley Cup winner when he went into the 2002 playoffs on one good leg. Yzerman hurt his knee during the 2001-02 season, missing 30 games. When the playoffs arrived, Yzerman was in great pain but as is usual with the playoff hockey player, Yzerman played the “mind over matter” game and, at age 37, Stevie Y was taking regular shifts on a knee that qualified for Federal disaster relief. Yzerman even spent some time during the playoffs in a special hyperbaric oxygen chamber. But that was nothing compared to what he put himself through before games, like Brent Gilchrist four years earlier. Again, there were long needles involved and teammates looking the other way. These were the playoffs, after all. The Red Wings won another Stanley Cup, their captain by the end of the playoff run needing to prop himself from the ice with his hands because his knee wasn’t able to do it by itself. And, like Gilchrist, Yzerman’s injury had after effects. Following the 2001-02 season, Yzerman underwent a knee realignment surgery, which meant that he played during the playoffs with a knee that was misaligned, which—I don’t know about you—sounds as delightful as chomping on a candy apple with misaligned teeth. The surgery was called an osteotomy, and doctors told us that it was commonly performed—on senior citizens! Here’s a description of a knee osteotomy, courtesy Wikipedia: Knee osteotomy is commonly used to realign arthritic damage on one side of the knee. The goal is to shift the patient’s body weight off the damaged area to the other side of the knee, where the cartilage is still healthy. Surgeons remove a wedge of the tibia from underneath the unhealthy side of the knee, which allows the tibia and femur to bend away from the damaged cartilage. And Yzerman led the Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup on a knee that needed the above work, forthwith. Now it’s 2011, and already there is a walking wounded among the Red Wings before the playoffs even get started—leading scorer Henrik Zetterberg, who suffered a “lower body injury” in Carolina this week. Judging by the way Zetterberg left the ice, the lower body injury looks like something to do with his legs. Zetterberg’s status, according to the propagandists within the Red Wings’ medical staff, is the unsatisfying “day-to-day.” No doubt, maybe even as we speak, Hank Zetterberg is undergoing some sort of treatment, somewhere on his “lower body,” that is designed to deaden his pain and brainwash him into thinking that it’s not all that bad—until the playoffs end and they tell him that his lower body will have to be realigned. Hey, after Bob Baun scored on a broken ankle and Brent Gilchrist had himself shot up with knitting needles and Steve Yzerman led his teammates to a Stanley Cup on a misaligned knee, it’s the least Zetterberg can do, me thinks. These are the playoffs, for chrissakes.