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Suck it up and play

Some thoughts on why players play injured.

NHL: New York Islanders at Tampa Bay Lightning
Antron Stralman is helped off the ice after breaking his leg against the Islanders
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of talk about injuries in the NHL, forever. The most recent incident revolved around superstar Connor McDavid and the NHL’s concussion spotters. In a game against the Minnesota Wild, McDavid, the league’s current leading scorer, was tripped behind the net and landed chin-first on the ice.

He immediately grabbed his face, but skated off under his own power. The spotters decided he needed to pass a concussion test, which he did. Unfortunately it kept him off the ice during a key power play and the the Oilers lost 2-1 in overtime.

McDavid was incensed after the game, saying that not being out there for the power play “could have changed the game”. His teammate Pat Maroon went further, ranting about hockey being a “man’s game,” and basically saying that stuff like this happens and players should be allowed to play through it. Since making those comments he’s been rightly castigated for the comments being both misogynistic and outdated.

But why do players say these things? Saying that they’re athletes with an “old-school” mindset is the easy answer. And it’s not the full answer. On our side of the fence, it seems so cut and dried. A player gets hit in the head with the puck, or bounces his face off the ice, should probably be checked to see if his brain bounced around against his skull.

It isn’t just about concussions. Last week, Ryan Callahan admitted that his surgically repaired hip was bothering him. Anton Stralman played on a partially broken leg during the playoffs, and Tyler Johnson played the beginning of last season not fully healed from his broken wrist. Why do they rush back so quickly?

With so much information (and so many lawsuits) about concussions out there, why do so many players hold onto this “pain don’t hurt” mentality? Not being a professional hockey player I can’t say for sure, but having spent 40 years on this earth, playing sports for half of that and consciously watching/following/writing about them for about 36 years I do have some thoughts.

I’m not injured, I’m just a little banged up

Things happen in sports. Players get hit with pucks. They tweak knees, sprain elbows and break small bones. Most of the time playing with the injury won’t make it worse. Yes it’ll hurt, but they’re not going to get any worse. A broken pinkie can be taped up and not really affect how someone holds their hockey stick.

So even if a player tears his ACL, if he can walk on it he can tell himself that it’s okay. Take Logan Mankins, an offensive guard for the New England Patriots who played on a torn ACL for most of the 2011 season. When asked if considered sitting out he responded with:

“No I could still run, so there was no reason to sit out. There were no MRIs or anything, so we never knew what exactly was hurt. If you could still run and play, there’s no real reason to see a doctor, right?”

So who makes the call about whether a player is hurt or injured? The obvious answer is that the medical staff should make the call. It shouldn’t be the player or the coach. The problem is that the player might not always let on that something is wrong with him or may downplay the amount of pain they are in.

If they think it might cost them an opportunity to play, they’re going to be cagey with the truth. Tyler Seguin tried to hide an ankle injury during this fall’s World Cup of Hockey because “any time your country calls, it’s a great honor and is something every kid from Canada dreams about getting the chance to do.”

Seguin was willing to risk his season for a glorified, made-up money grab disguised as an international tournament. It’s no wonder why they do it when they’re actually getting paid to play.

The players also might not want to believe it themselves. A Canadian basketball player dislocated her kneecap and tried to tell herself, “It was only some pulled muscles,” and even though her leg was going through “contractions, [she] refused to believe it was bad”.

Especially during the game itself, the adrenaline and sense of competition keeps them from realizing how bad they are hurt. Their mindset becomes, “get through the game and deal with it later.”

Can’t let my team down.

As fans move to a more stats-based view of the game, terms like chemistry, heart, and desire start to become a punchline. While I prefer a player that ranks higher on puck possession metrics then he does on the “grit-meter”, totally dismissing the personal aspect is foolish. These players are human and they do develop friendships and comaradership [What is this word? - Acha] (a term coined by former USF Bulls football coach, Jim Leavitt, not to be confused with comradeship) [Oh - Acha], they are not stat-compiling robots.

Almost to a player, they will say the most frustrating thing about being injured is not being able to help the team out. It’s not that rehabbing a torn ACL is extremely painful or that having a blood clot is literally life-threatening. It’s watching a team lose and know that they can’t do anything to stop it.

Back to that Mankins interview. When asked about the best thing being back on the practice field was he replied with,

“Just being with the guys”.

Not being able to walk or play without pain, but just to be out on the field for practice.

If I'm not a hockey player…

Ryan Callahan is 31-years-old. To hockey fans, that means he is starting the downside of his career. If his hip problem continues, there is a good chance he is retired before he's 35. That’s a good run in sports. What does he do after that? At an age when most of us are working our way up the corporate ladder, he will be sitting at home trying to figure out how to fill the 24 hours in his day without blowing through all of the money he's made.

If they play long enough and see their skills diminish, they can adjust to that (some take longer than others and makes it sad to see them try to recapture their former glory). Plus they have time to plan for the end of their career. But how do they adjust to a sudden retirement, not because of skills, but because their body betrayed them? What are they going to do with all of that extra time in their life? There are only a handful of"analyst" positions available on TV.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Professional athletes are used to being the best, and as most young people do, they think they are indestructible or that that enough training can overcome anything. Dr. Kate Hayes, a sports psychologist told the Toronto Sun:

“Anybody who is a high achiever, performance focused, that (person) acts as if injury is never going to happen. And when it does, the reaction can be to do what one can to minimize and ignore it. It’s part of the drive to be the best, to accomplish, to achieve, to keep at it. And the idea of injury and having to pause is counter to all of that intention.”

That's why a player goes through the trouble of a hip surgery that won't necessarily guarantee to fix the problem. That's why they go through the rehab and pain. That's why they sometimes come back too soon. Because if an injury can slow them down, then maybe they aren't the best. Doubt can be a powerful enemy for an athlete.

There is a real fear that they could lose their job because of the injury. As fans we love teams that have depth. If someone gets hurt and another player can get plugged in to keep the team chugging along, fantastic! For the player that just got replaced, not so great. No one wants to be cast aside.

Not all of these players are Harvard men like Alex Killorn. In fact, most of them didn't even go to college. Many do not have fallback plans. They are hockey players. Since they were young, their whole goal in life was to play professional hockey, and they achieved that goal. If they woke up one day and were no longer a hockey player then who are they? It's no wonder they want to hold onto it as long as possible.

In researching how athletes deal with the psychological aspects of injuries, Drs. Samantha O'Connell and Theo C. Manschreck found:

"Whereas most people become competent in many aspects of life, and develop support systems across multiple contexts, an athlete—particularly an extraordinarily talented one—may have focused only on his or her sport... Individuals with strong athletic identities are less likely to explore other career, educational, and lifestyle options. In the context of team sports, an athlete may feel less emotionally supported if an injury results in the loss of his or her central role with the team.”

Many years ago, when the Twin Towers still stood and Friends was the number one comedy on TV, the company I worked for brought in a motivational speaker. It was everything you would think it would be. He did stress one interesting thing - the difference between who you are and what you do.

I work at a hotel, but that is not who I am. I am a writer, a husband, a snarky Twitter user, a brother, a son, etc. For many professional athletes there is no distinction between who they are and what they do. The two are so deeply intertwined that they can’t separate the two.

Rub some dirt on it

Even as a kid I remember coaches giving me that advice when I got hit with a baseball. I'm not sure what healing properties were contained in common Maryland dirt and rocks, but mentally it seemed to work. Or it just embedded the thought, that "it can't be that bad".

That mindset starts at an early age in sports and continues throughout every level. Bumps and bruises can be overcome with a little dirt (or 'Tussin). Cuts can be stitched or covered and you're back on the ice. Is it a pulled hamstring or a torn hamstring? Who cares, finish the game and figure it out then.

Chris Bosh played with blood-clots in his lungs. Blood-clots, as all Lightning fans know, can be life-threatening. “That’s kind of how we’re trained,” he said in an ESPN radio interview, “to suck it up and throw some dirt on it and get back out there.”

In a post for the Players Tribune, professional lacrosse player Paul Rabil wrote, "Nobody celebrates the player who decides to put their health first". He's right. No one ever penned a fawning column about the athlete who missed the second half of a championship game because of a bad knee, but search "Willis Reed" and there are millions of results popping up on your screen.

How great is this picture?

Marty St. Louis drinks a beer poured by Andre Roy while getting his face stitched up after they just won the Stanley Cup. This is the real life portrayal of "Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory lasts forever." As fans, we love images like that. We don't remember players sitting in the press box with an injury.

There is no glory for the player in saying, "Something's not right, maybe I should get it checked out right away". Players don't want to be in that press box when the trophy is being passed around. Trevor Daley talked a doctor into devising a walking boot/skate just so he could get on the ice with the cup last season even though he broke his ankle a couple of weeks earlier (Maybe Daley isn’t the best example as part of the reason he wanted to be on the ice so bad was so that his mother could see it before she succumbed to her health issues).

Nobody wants to be Wally Pipp

For the younger readers out there (sorry about the NSFW link earlier), Wally Pipp was the first baseman for the New York Yankees back in the 1920s. He was a good player, he hit .281 in his career and drove in over 1000 runs. One day, as the story goes, he was feeling a little sick, and manager Miller Huggins gave him the day and started a young kid by the name of Lou Gehrig. Gehrig would play the next 2,130 games in a row. Wally Pipp would become a cautionary tale about not showing up to work.*

Players work so hard to make it to the top level that once they earn that spot they don't want to lose it. Think of the recent tribulations of Slater Koekkoek. Healthy scratches, diminished playing time and two demotions to Syracuse. When he makes it back to Tampa do you think he he's going to lose his spot because his knee is bothering him?

Some players are always going to have a spot on a team. No matter how many more times Sidney Crosby gets his bell rung the Penguins are going to welcome him back when he's feeling better. Does the same hold true for someone like Namestnikov? If he misses a couple of games and Joel Vermin plays well, then Vladdy isn't automatically getting his spot back. He is looking at more time on the bench, so why tell the team he's hurt in the first place? Play through the pain and hope it gets better when there are some off days.

Commentators will roll out the tired line of, “players shouldn’t lose their spot due to injury.” but again that mostly applies to the starting quarterback or number one goalie. The offensive line man and the number 6 defender are a different story.

It’s easy for people with more than one support network to wonder why a player rushes back from an injury. We have that luxury. After all, there will always be other players for us to root for and write about. For the player though, they have to deal with the fear that a torn ACL or a torn hip labrum could end their career.

So the next time you hear an athlete talk about playing through the pain, know that some of that bravado is masking something else, a real fear for their future.

~

*Pipp denies he was sick that day. The reason why Huggins benched him is still a bit of a mystery. Most likely it was because the Yankees had lost 5 games in a row and were 15 games out of first place.