Pride outweighs pain in NHL playoffs
For many in the NHL, playing hurt in playoffs is worth a shot at Stanley Cup
Dave Dye / The Detroit News April 15, 2009
You want the Stanley Cup? Pay the price.
The two-month, NHL playoff grind that begins today is a journey of sacrifice.
It's Toronto's Bobby Baun scoring in overtime of Game 6 in the 1964 Stanley Cup Finals on a broken ankle.
It's Steve Yzerman, at age 37, playing basically on one leg throughout the Red Wings' 2002 Stanley Cup run, then undergoing radical knee-realignment surgery.
And it's the tortured screams of Brent Gilchrist coming from the trainer's room every time he received a painkilling shot in his groin during the Wings' 1998 playoff run.
How badly do you want it? Will you give your body?
There's really no other way to win those 16 playoff games.
"It shows mental toughness, character, professionalism, commitment," said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins during their 1992 championship season. "There's no out-of-bounds in our sport. You're playing at a high rate of speed. Sticks and pucks are a real part of it. You've got lots of different vehicles that can create injury, physical duress and damage.
"And when you're doing it virtually every other night for two months, it becomes really, really difficult. It's amazing to watch the sacrifices guys make. That's probably why winning the Stanley Cup is so special."
By the time the Cup is hoisted in mid-June, faces will be cut and scarred. Teeth will be knocked out. Players will be battered, bruised and limping. Surgeries will be required.
In the regular season, players might be out for days, weeks, months. But in the playoffs there's no time to heal or rehabilitate, not with another crucial game in less than 48 hours.
Shake it off and play
The culture, the unwritten code, of playoff hockey is you find a way to play.
"We have warriors in our sport," said Wings assistant Brad McCrimmon, who played 18 years in the NHL.
Tomas Holmstrom played with a hernia and Valtteri Filppula on a partially torn right knee ligament during the Wings' playoff march last year.
"It's a game of survival," said ex-Wings trainer John Wharton. "It amazes me the level of pain tolerance these guys have. I still don't get it. Knowing what I've seen and what I should have seen, it's incongruent."
But in the NHL, it's expected.
"There's a silent police in the dressing room," Wharton said. "Guys know whether or not you should be playing. It's unspoken, but it's felt."
Kris Draper has played in 192 playoff games.
Most memorably, he suffered a broken jaw, nose and cheekbone after being run into the boards by the Colorado Avalanche's Claude Lemieux in the 1996 conference finals.
At other times, painkilling shots have helped keep him going with a broken rib, separated shoulder and hernia.
"You know you're making it worse, you know at the end of the year you're going to have surgery, but you freeze it up and go play," Draper said. "Whatever you have to do, you're going to do."
Ted Lindsay, one of the game's all-time toughest players during a Hall of Fame career with the Wings, recalls playing on a fractured foot in the playoffs about five decades ago.
"The mind can overcome a lot of things," Lindsay said. "When you play this profession, you have to have pride in it, you have to have love for it. Love sometimes makes you do things you normally wouldn't do."
Leading by example
McGuire considers the valor displayed by Yzerman seven years ago "nothing short of spectacular."
"That's one of the game's all-time great laurels," McGuire said.
Players are inspired when they witness a teammate go to such limits. Their own ailments don't seem quite as important.
"You can't help but go out and try to give everything you have," said Wings veteran Kirk Maltby. "It's contagious."
Yzerman, who had 23 points in 23 games in those 2002 playoffs, received anti-inflammatory shots before each game.
It didn't eliminate the pain, but made things more tolerable, he said.
The painkilling shots are as much a part of playoff hockey as growing beards.
Chris Chelios, in his 25th NHL season, said he has received so many shots over the years, "I feel like a pin cushion."
"I don't like it in the toes," Chelios said. "Needles in the toes or the fingers, that's very sensitive. Other than that, you don't think about it. I probably take them when I shouldn't just because they don't bother me."
While Yzerman hobbled, taking injections and providing inspiration, he was well aware of the broken-ankle legend of Baun from decades earlier.
"Guys like that set the bar and every generation of player has got to live up to it," Yzerman said. "I wouldn't say everybody does but, hopefully, the guys on your team do."
Crossing the 'fine line'
Gilchrist, Yzerman's linemate, went to the extreme -- all for the opportunity to play on his first Cup champion team.
Shortly after pregame warm-ups during those playoff games 11 years ago, Gilchrist headed to the trainer's room for "the shot heard 'round the dressing room."
"It was the tendon where it attaches to the pubic bone," Gilchrist explained.
"Pretty much as private a part as you can get," Wharton said.
Wharton would hold one of Gilchrist's hands. Piet Van Zant, now the Wings trainer, held the other. Gilchrist bit down on a towel. David Collon, the team physician, gave the shot.
"We literally could hear him screaming," Yzerman said. "It was awful."
"I walked away," Holmstrom said. "I didn't want to hear."
Gilchrist played in 15 of the team's 22 playoff games that season, but missed the four-game sweep of the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Finals.
By then, the tendon had torn away from the bone and there was nothing doctors could do.
"Now that I've retired, I hate pain," said Gilchrist, who lives near Vancouver. "I hate even thinking about things we went through as players. I look back on it now and it was just what you did. I don't remember the pain being bad enough that I didn't want to do it.
"I guess there's a fine line. When you're hurt, I think you can play. And when you're injured, you can't."
Gilchrist paused before adding, "In the playoffs, that line is sometimes distorted. Guys are playing injured."
And for hockey players, the real pain is in never winning the Stanley Cup.