Injuries are a part of sports, just like wins and losses. Sooner or later, everyone suffers an injury of some sort. While not to diminish the severity of injuries suffered in other leagues, the physical nature of hockey often seems to lead to a larger degree of serious health issues.
Compounding that is the mindset that players believe they have to play through these injuries. Playing through bumps and bruises, sprains and strains is nothing new, but the rise in concussion awareness has brought to light some startling issues.
In an exclusive interview with Sportnets Eric Engels, Andrew Shaw opened up recently about his battle with concussions last year, and it revealed the dangerous mindset that pervades the game of hockey. He describes his nightmarish time during the 2016 playoffs after he took what he called a “bell-ringer” of a hit, but he ignored that to keep playing.
In the next game he was cross-checked in the head by Brendan Smith, with the two fighting in Game Five of the series.
What followed all of this was nothing short of horrifying. Shaw explained how his life was drastically changed during this time.
"I remember waking up in the middle of the night, puking, not sleeping, and I wasn’t getting more than two or three hours of sleep during that night."
“A teammate came up to me and asked me if I was all right because he could see it in my eyes that I didn’t look right. He said it looked like I was looking right through him, and I was thinking there must be something wrong with me then."
So not only was he playing injured, he was badly concussed to the point it was plainly obvious to those around him, and yet he kept it to himself.
He admitted to going into his visits with doctors and telling them “what you need to say to get back out there.” Playing through this severe head trauma had a long-lasting impact, as he was still suffering post-concussion effects into July and wasn’t cleared to play until a few days before his first pre-season action.
He suffered his first “bell-ringer” on April 12th and was finally cleared to play in mid-Septembe., That’s nearly six months of suffering from post-concussion syndrome.
Other cases around the league
Shaw isn’t the first player to regard his well-being as a secondary concern during the playoffs, and he won’t be the last. The mindset of players once the playoffs roll around is to play at any cost, regardless of the damage they’re doing to their own bodies.
In the 2013 Stanley Cup run for the Boston Bruins, Patrice Bergeron battled through a myriad of injuries. He played Game Six with a hole in his lung that wasn’t discovered until after the game. The list for him also included a broken rib, torn cartilage and muscle tissue, and a separated shoulder.
Head coach Claude Julien had no idea of the extent of the injury, and it’s likely the training staff didn’t either. Unless Bergeron had said something, he would have likely forced himself into a possible Game Seven as well.
More recently, the San Jose Sharks long-time star Joe Thornton played four playoff games last season with almost nothing holding his knee together. He had a torn ACL and MCL. Each of those injuries alone can be debilitating, let alone both at once, and he still forced himself to play. Topping out at over 20 minutes of ice time in the final two games of the series, Thornton then went out for surgery and needed a full summer of rehab to recover.
Also a victim of the 2017 playoffs is Senators captain Erik Karlsson, who played through multiple fractures in his foot while carrying Ottawa to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final. The recovery time was already going to cause him to miss the start of this year, but that was before the complications arose. In a piece from The Athletic, it was revealed that Karlsson’s recovery isn’t going as hoped.
Karlsson is still waiting for a new tendon, surgically inserted in June, to “settle into” his body. He can’t get his foot into a skate boot until his skin stops splitting open, which, evidently, keeps happening.
Karlsson’s loss is a major blow to a Senators team that looked utterly hapless when the Swede was off the ice last year. Yet he knew he had these injuries, chose to accept the risks, made the injury worse, and at the end his team still ended up going home empty-handed.
Changing the culture
This mentality of having to play through serious injuries in the NHL is well past being a small issue. Players are actively shortening their careers by trying to play through broken bones, torn tissues, and concussions.
It’s not a new development either. Eric Lindros likely could have been one of the all-time leading scorers if teams had taken care to realize the extent of these “unseen injuries.”
But the onus is not just on the teams to be more aware and alert with treating injuries, but on players to admit they aren’t healthy enough to play. Fans and media can gripe that a player removed themselves from a game, but when long-term health is at risk, that takes precedence over everything else. There will be other games. You don’t get more than one chance at life after your playing days are over.
Luckily for Shaw, he has learned this, and the newlywed now seems to respect the ramifications of pushing things too far.
“Yes it’s hockey, but you have a life outside of hockey.”
“I plan on having kids and I want to be able to spend time with my kids and enjoy their life and have them enjoy mine. If you push yourself through it over and over again, you’re going to have difficulties later in life.”
It’s a small start in the uphill climb to change what is an ingrained part of the hockey culture. For the future of the players and the sport, hopefully more follow this lead and learn to listen to their body when things clearly aren’t working.
Like Shaw said, there’s more in life than just hockey.