It is a delicate balance, one many NHL players face as the games grow more meaningful and the playoffs loom: do they play hurt or do they take themselves out of the lineup for the good of the team?
Hockey, after all, celebrates the courageous, transforms players into legendary figures. Think of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bob Baun playing on a broken leg. Think of Anaheim Ducks forward Paul Kariya being laid out on the ice by Scott Stevens, only to return minutes later and score a key goal to force a Game 7 for the Stanley Cup. Those images are stitched in time.
What isn’t remembered or even known is how many players put themselves or their team at risk by crossing the boundary between bravery and foolishness. It’s a quandary with short-term, long-term implications. Playing beyond the usual aches and bruises is an expectation that can inspire teammates, spark a goal, win a game. But Ian Laperriere admitted he went beyond the norm when he hid his postconcussion symptoms from the Philadelphia Flyers for a go at the Stanley Cup.
Regaled for his grit, Laperriere began the 2010 playoffs by taking a puck in the face near his right eye. The force of the shot left him with orbital damage, a reported 70 stitches and a concussion. He sat out the rest of the opening-round series against the New Jersey Devils, missed the second round against the Boston Bruins along with the first three games of the Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Canadiens.
That was as long as Laperriere could bear to sit.
“I was in the league for 16 years and never came close to winning the Cup,” he said. “I saw the team doing so well. I wanted to be part of it.”
Laperriere wanted so badly to be part of the Flyers’ run, he didn’t tell anyone he was still experiencing postconcussion symptoms. Before Philadelphia lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, Laperriere was voted the NHL’s toughest player by The Hockey News. He tried a comeback in September of 2010, but has yet to play another game.
“I really do believe there are guys playing right now with concussions,” said Laperriere, who will have problems with his eye for the rest of his life. “They don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to lose their job. It’s not like Sidney Crosby who can miss two years and play, especially for the third, fourth liners.”
So they play hurt and they lie about it. Canadiens forward Mathieu Darche did for as long as he could with what was later treated as a concussion. Asked about his injury, he replied with a laugh: “You mean my really bad flu?”
Darche didn’t become a full-time NHL player until he was 33. He is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He pushed himself hard before realizing he had become a liability.
“The only reason I was able to play those games was because I didn’t saying anything to our athletic therapists,” he said. “During the game against Dallas [Feb 21] I was the one who told them I wasn’t right. People are quick to judge teams when it comes to how they treat injuries, but the players have some responsibility also.”
The playoffs harden the game’s stud-up mindset because it’s no longer about the rich salaries; it’s about earning a place in history. That’s both the allure, Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said, and the danger. It’s why he relies on the team’s medical staff to assess matters in consultation with the player.
“I don’t think questioning someone’s character or knocking them if they don’t want to go … I just wouldn’t do that as a coach,” Babcock said. “I know in the Stanley Cup final these guys will play through anything. But you have to put the team first. We talk about it every year.”
Does it get any easier?
“No,” Babcock said. “The reality is it’s a fine line.”