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Toughness a Key Intangible for any Great Hockey Team

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Ask any NHL veteran about his battle scars, and suddenly he begins to resemble a third-base coach in baseball, giving the bunt sign to a batter.

Touch nose, touch forehand, touch chin, swipe across cheek, etc.

Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey leaves its mark on its players. There are few faces that haven’t been stitched at some point, few skeletal structures that haven’t experienced a break in some location (or five) and few mouths with full sets of teeth.

But ask those players about the number of games they missed due to injury, and often a blank stare is given in return. Miss a game? For an injury? There’s seemingly nothing that stitches, cotton or tape -- or some combination thereof -- can’t temporarily fix.

This is nothing new. Stories about the relative toughness of hockey players, as compared to other professional athletes, are old and well-told, such as the tale of the baseball outfielder who once missed a game because of a sprained eyelid.

Anze Kopitar returned to the ice shortly after receivnig 18 stitches during the season opener in Vancouver.
By contrast, there’s the Kings’ Anze Kopitar. Midway through the second period of the Kings’ season opener on Oct. 9, Kopitar got sliced badly on the left side of his face, just above his mouth, by the stick of Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra.

Kopitar left the ice a bloody mess, looking like something out of a horror movie, and needed 18 stitches. He missed perhaps 10 minutes of game action before he returned to the ice for the start of the third period, and later scored a goal in the shootout.

``It's pretty special in sports, I think, to see that kind of an attitude,'' Kings coach Terry Murray said. ``Where it began, I have no idea, but it's clearly a blue-collar mentality that seems to be a big part of the fabric of the hockey player.

``It's pretty amazing, when you look back over the years at the players I've seen -- and Kopi is a great example --when you're getting cut in the mouth, that's a very sensitive area, and you're coming back as quickly as possible. I've seen some amazing things over the years.''

Go around the Kings’ dressing room, and there’s an endless number of stories. They all have something in common. The players involved rarely missed much ice time.

Drew Doughty took a puck to the teeth early last season, got his face bloodied and nearly lost a handful of front teeth. He missed a couple shifts and returned for the next game wearing a full face shield, with a fat lip and his front teeth bonded together.

``Obviously it sucks when you first get knocked out,'' Doughty said, ``but after that, you just want to get back out there. You hate missing any time in a game, and you just want to get back out there. You fight through it. It sucks to be in the dentist's chair and get your teeth fixed, but that's part of the game. We have to deal with it.

During the 2004-05 lockout, Dustin Brown played for the AHL Manchester Monarchs and lost several of his front teeth while attempting to make a hit along the boards.

``I went to hit a guy, and he fell, and my face went into the dasher,'' Brown said. ``It knocked out four teeth. That was probably the worst. That was the most traumatic that I can remember.''

Did Brown miss the rest of the game? A couple beyond that?

``No, I actually came back and scored in overtime,'' Brown said with a toothless smile. ``Then it didn't feel so bad.''

Murray, a former NHL defenseman, had his neck cut open while playing junior hockey.

``I got cut real bad, real deep in my throat,'' Murray said. ``I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink, I couldn't do anything for about five days. It was a backchecking player, and he missed my stick and came up and it went right into my throat. I got about 25 stitches in there after the game, and it was not fun.''

How many games did he miss?

``Oh, I didn't miss any games,'' Murray said with a laugh.

That led Murray to recall another battle scar, one that is still visible just below his nose.

``One of the worst ones I had was as a coach (in Washington),'' Murray said. ``I was passing pucks to a player, Paul Cavallini. I was passing pucks to him for one-timers, and one came off the crossbar. That's the mark here [on his face]. I got cut and I got 45 stitches. It went right through both lips. I didn't go down, but that was a bad cut.''

Roughly 25 years later, there’s still a story going around the Kings’ dressing room about how, during one game, Dave Taylor’s finger ``exploded’’ and needed some crude, creative, ``reconstruction’’ with tape. Taylor returned to the game.

What makes these players tick? What drives them to get back on the ice, when most reasonable people would take a seat in the locker room, if not in the hospital?

There’s no simple answer, other than that a culture was established decades ago, long before any current players were born, and has been handed down through the generations. It’s unstated, that sense of, ``If we did it, so can you.’’

The culture is strange and fascinating. Player discuss, plainly and without irony, where it's ``good'' to be cut, meaning a cut where the long-lasting scar won't show as much, such as on the lip line, above the hair line, etc.

They nonchalantly share stories of receiving dozens of stitches, of losing teeth, of having injections and bones re-set during games. It's merely an occupational hazard.

``It's one of those things where everyone runs the risk of having it happen,'' Brown said. ``I've had it happen a number of times. It's more frustrating than anything, because it's just a lot of work that you have to do after the fact. But once you get sewed up, you just go back out there and finish the game. That night, you probably don't feel too good, but getting back out there, it's just something you do. You don't think about it too much.''

Do players ever try to take it too far, though?

It's one thing for players to try to be brave and return during a game, but they can also run the risk of hurting themselves further -- and, by extension, hurting the team -- when attempting to play at much less than 100 percent.

Does a coach, such as Murray, ever find himself vacillating between getting a player back on the ice and holding him back out of caution?

``I don't get involved in that part of it,'' Murray said. ``That's a medical process, with (trainer) Chris Kingsley and our doctors. Dr. (Michael) Mellman is in there, and we trust those guys, that they're going to make the right decisions. When a player gets back to the bench, to me he's ready to play.''

Unless there's a broken bone or serious damage, that often doesn't take long.

As for the comparison to other sports, in terms of relative toughness, hockey players shy away from the comparison, albeit sometimes with a wry grin.

``I know people say that sometimes,'' Doughty said, ``but I don't want to badmouth other sports, because then we'll be hearing it back.''

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