Not real clear on why I’m doing this right now. Perhaps it’s due to the Penguins’ endless litany of upper-body injuries, lower-body injuries, and mid-body injuries (ruptured navel?); perhaps because it’s hard to shake that single one-cycle news story out of Russia from mid-March, but here it is:
BREAKING NEWS: Hockey is dangerous.
I know you know, but occasionally it’s useful to describe again how dangerous the game is and how everyone, players, fans, and media alike, generally take for granted the courage necessary to play it.
On Friday, March 12, in a playoff game between Dynamo St. Petersburg’s junior team and Loko Yaroslavl, a puck fired from the neutral zone struck Dynamo defenseman Timur Faizutdinov in the head.
He died the following Monday. He was 19.
The puck, a 1-by-3 inch disc of frozen, vulcanized rubber traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph, is a stone killer. In the days before face shields, the one-inch side fit perfectly within the orbital bone, which is how Doc Emrick, the Hall of Fame broadcaster, came to see an International Hockey Player lose his eye — tried to play anyway, because hockey, but couldn’t.
Emrick, the erstwhile New Jersey Devils and NBC play-by-play icon, skating the first year of a richly deserved retirement that’s been cross-checked by the pandemic, remembered another story for me this week.
“On route to the championship in 2016, Ian Cole was either the shot block leader for the Penguins or close to the top, and his fiancé had, as an engagement present, given him a necklace crucifix to wear, and he wore it all the time including during games,” Doc said. “In one of the games at the Garden in New York, he dropped down to block a shot. Now, he is well protected. He’s got shoulder pads on, probably other protection under shoulder pads, but the force of one of the shots he dropped down to block, not only did the crucifix inside of his jersey, inside of his shoulder pads, take the force of the shot, but he showed me a picture that I’m sure he still has, of a bruise in the shape of a cross on the upper part of his chest that was made by the force of the puck hitting the crucifix and implanting a bruise in that exact shape.
“And that’s just routine. He shrugged it off. Didn’t wear the crucifix after that but only because the puck partly displaced the figure on the cross.”
But if the puck can make an impression, among other things, the skates can be equally frightful. Only some urgent and expert medical attention saved the lives of Buffalo Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk and Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik when flying skates sliced their necks open. In both instances, the ice ran red. Malarchuk’s jugular was cut. He took 300 stitches. He was back practicing in four days. Because hockey.
Now a brief pause for a quick accounting: The skates are sharp (in fact, they’re sharpened constantly), the puck is hard, the sticks are hard, the boards are hard, the glass is hard, and many of the players are hard or harder and plenty are nastier.
“Some of the guys I played against, seriously, they belonged in the state penitentiary,” said Penguins analyst Phil Bourque, out of the game now a quarter century. “They were thugs. What they would do, when the score was like 7 to 2, and they haven’t played the whole game, and now they jump over the boards and you’re out there on the ice and it was like, ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ They feel like they have to go after you or they’ll lose their job. It was like caveman stuff. I mean, you didn’t mind getting punched in the face, but you didn’t want it to be to the point where it ended your career or your life. You had to learn to survive.”
That was 25, 35 years ago. Today’s game is, of course, even more dangerous.
“Way, way more dangerous,” Bourque said. “In those days, some fourth-line guys, you could skate circles around them. You could skate away from them. They couldn’t catch you. Today, everybody can skate like the wind. You see more and more big, strapping players and you add in all the knowledge and the conditioning.”
There’s something of a sports miracle in this corybantic blend of objects, animate and inanimate. Played to its highest level, hockey is an aesthetically elegant game, intricate even, beautiful in its intersecting arcs and circles, breathtaking acceleration and quick twitch reflexes.
“There is a bit of a ballet to it, a Neanderthal ballet,” Bourque said. “If you ask every player when they come into the league at 18, 19, 20, whenever, to sign a waiver: ‘You gotta sign this waiver. You might take a puck in the throat or a puck in the head, and you might die. Do you still want to play this game? If you do, you gotta sign this waiver.’
“I bet you 99.9 percent of the players would sign the waiver, knowing they accept the risk. It could happen. If I die this way, I die this way, doing something I absolutely love. That might sound a little callous and narrow-minded, but it’s kind of the mentality you have to have to get to the NHL. You have to have a kind of disregard for your body and accept the risk.”
Oh, and one last thing. The ice. It’s slippery out there.