Sunday, February 12, 2012

Holmstrom Proves It: Hockey Players Are Nuts

When is someone going to officially declare that hockey players are certifiably nuts?

I mean off-their-rocker nuts, totally and completely out of their minds?

It’s a sport played by Kamikazes, who zoom around an ice rink surrounded by non-giving hardwood boards, with sharp objects all around them: skates, sticks, corners of elbows and teeth—those that haven’t been spit out on the bench, that is.

You think football players are tough? Maybe so, but they also have all their marbles, because the NFL hasn’t seen a leather helmet since World War II. The face mask started to come into vogue in the 1950s.

Jacques Plante, the legendary Hall of Fame goalie, tried to put a thin, flimsy mask on his face in the mid-‘50s and was all but mocked out of the league. It wasn’t until Plante took one too many vulcanized rubber discs between the eyes and refused to play without facial protection that Montreal coach Toe Blake consented to the wearing of the mask—with conditions.

If Plante had trouble seeing the puck, Blake said, then the mask was history and so was Plante if he had a problem with Toe’s disclaimer.

Plante could see the puck—or, he told his coach that he could see the puck.

Not that any of Jacques’ brethren followed his lead right away.

Goalies continued to mostly go maskless until, unbelievably, the 1970s. Only then did the last few bare-faced netminders vanish.

I always thought a goalie not wearing a mask, facing pucks being fired around his head at upwards of 75 MPH, was akin to a race car driver refusing to wear a seat belt.

While all this insanity in hockey was going on, the NFL did away with leather helmets and as the years went on, the quality of the headgear got increasingly better.

Meanwhile, the NHL eschewed helmets like a dieting woman waving off a slice of cheesecake.

A few wore them, and they too were derided, as Plante had been. Again, not until 1979 did the NHL mandate helmets for its players. But there was a grandfather clause that said players who signed contracts before ’79 had the option to wear helmets or not.

That’s why Red Wings fans were treated to the balding head of Harold Snepsts from 1985-88.

The hockey players' shoulder pads until the Reagan administration were a rumor.

Don’t get me started on visors.

Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s Jackie Robinson—the league’s first black player—was in Detroit several years ago, sponsoring an initiative to get more African-American kids playing hockey in the inner city.

I knew of O’Ree, of course, but I didn’t know that he hid the fact that he was blind in one eye.

Come again?

“Oh yeah,” O’Ree told me as we chatted in a RenCen lounge. “I was afraid if they found out I couldn’t see in one eye, they wouldn’t let me play anymore.”

The irony is that because we’re talking hockey, not only would they have let O’Ree play, the powers that be might have sent their scouts looking for more one-eyed prospects.

Hockey players lose teeth, have their faces gashed open and break their legs—sometimes all before the first intermission. They might miss a shift or two—or however long it takes a doctor to pull, stitch or set whatever needs to be pulled, stitched or set.

Toronto defenseman Bob Baun beat the Red Wings in the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals with an overtime goal—playing on a snapped ankle.

O’Ree played with one eye.

Amazingly, there has been only one fatality in a game—that of Minnesota’s Bill Masterton, in 1968, whose head hit the ice after a check. And we’re talking about 100 years of this ice hockey stuff.

Masterton’s death, by the way, had no effect on players wearing helmets. They continued to not don them.

I remember watching video of Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk bleeding from his neck like a wide-open faucet after his carotid artery was slashed by a wayward skate. I can still see the white ice below his neck turn deep red within seconds.

Malarchuk almost died, but he kept playing after his neck healed.

If you need more convincing that hockey players are coo coo, look no further than the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom.

Holmstrom played in his 1,000th career NHL game Friday night. Good for him. That’s not an insignificant milestone.

But that also means that Holmstrom has subjected himself to 1,000 games of being hacked, whacked, face-washed and throttled—not to mention putting himself in the crosshairs of powerful slap shots from the point.

Holmstrom is that guy you’ve seen camping out in front of opponents’ nets since 1996 with utter disregard for his own well-being. Nothing good can come from stationing yourself where Holmstrom does during a hockey game, but a whole lot of bad can happen.

Well, there is one good thing that comes from it: scoring goals.

Holmstrom, before Friday’s game, had scored 240 goals in the NHL. I’ll bet 200 of them have come with a very expensive physical price to pay.

Holmstrom isn’t the flashy goal scorer who uses sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors to deposit pucks past goalies while nary being touched.

Oh no.

Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.

You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?

Holmstrom is the typical hockey player—which means he’s as crazy as a box of yo-yos. What does he think of all the abuse he’s endured for 1,000 games?

"It's fun, for sure,” he told the Free Press the other day. “People just are like, 'Congratulations, 998, 999. One to go.' Frequent reminders. It's fun."

I’m telling you, these guys are looney.

Congratulations, Tomas—you crazy SOB.

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