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Not For The Faint Of Heart

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

“He’ll be heading down to the medical room for repairs.”

How many times have you heard broadcasters casually intone those words when a player’s face has been sliced open by a stick, punch or puck?

Cuts to the mugs are so frequent, the play-by-play guys sound like they are issuing directions: turn left at the player’s bench, right at the dressing room door and head to the medical room for repairs.

This is someone’s face trickling if not gushing blood. Baseball blisters are a matter of much more concern than a wound to a hockey player’s face and a glance at any NHL game shows lots of players still go completely bare-faced.

Among the Leafs, tough guys Colton Orr and Jay Rosehill as well as Tim Connolly, Mike Komisarek and Colby Armstrong keep the pathways to their peepholes clear.

If someone working a regular job suffered a dozen-stitch cut on the job he would take two weeks to recover and wear a Haz-Mat cowl to the office.

The whole company would be talking about it: “Did you hear about Bob in accounting? Paper clip while he was rushing through the expense accounts. Twelve stitches in the scalp. Could have happened to any one of us.”

While salaries hit the stratosphere the mindset of hockey players stays the same.  Bob knows his job is waiting while he convalesces.  The bigger the paycheque, the more playing capital that can be taken away by an injury a player can endure.

“I don’t worry about cuts,” said the Leafs Mikhail Grabovski, whose lower lip and jaw sports a spaghetti junction of scaring. “I worry about not playing.”

Players still discuss face shields, even visors, the way people in states where motorcycle headgear is not mandatory talk about helmets.

The arc of Bryan Berard’s career was wrecked by a high stick to the eye in 2001 but he remained an adamant supporter of a player’s right to choose.

"We're pro athletes and the choice should be ours," said the former Leaf.

To a hockey player, scars are like stamps on a passport, an item of idle interest to be pondered when someone asks.

“I think my best one is there in the mustache,” says gritty Leafs winger Joey Crabb. “I was taking a one-timer and a guy went to lift my stick. Caught me right in the face as I’m shooting the puck. It goes in. I go down and there’s blood everywhere.”

He points to his lip. “This one came on a Milan Lucic hit from behind last year. It split my head open in Boston.

“I can’t even think to even count the stitches,” he said cheerily. “My nose gets the brunt. This unit has taken a lot.”

Defenceman Cody Franson touches the major facial scars before processing the details. He is like one of those kid computers that only spits out an answer when you push one of the oversized keys.

“In junior I took one on the chin for six. I took one in practice last year for eight. I took one here for seven,“ he said, pointing to a spot somewhere between his chin and his orbital bone.

If the cut requires only a few stitches, many players shake off the needle. “With a little one the freezing hurts more than getting it stitched up,” Franson said.

Players who have been cut often are more likely to pop when punched.

“I got so many stitches in my eyebrows you wouldn’t have to do much to cut me. It’s all scar tissue,” said Bob McGill, a former Leafs defenceman and an analyst on Leafs TV.

“The last couple of times the doctor had a hell of a time trying to stitch them up because they are so full of scar tissue you couldn’t put the needle through.”

The high priest of the facial cut is Hall of Fame Leaf defenceman Borje Salming. Twenty-five years ago in November, Salming’s face absorbed a skate-blade from Detroit’s Gerard Gallant.
It took nearly 250 stitches to close the wound. The exact tally has never been established since much of the work was done from the inside out and the plastic surgeon was too busy sewing to count.

McGill was the first player to reach for Salming when he came to the bench.

“Our trainer at that time was Gunner (Guy) Kinnear,” McGill remembered, “and in those days trainers didn’t have the kind of medical training they get today. I thought he was going to pass out.”

“Borje’s face looked like a softball,” a shaken Steve Thomas said the net day.

Some players, Leaf enforcer Tie Domi comes to mind, hold standing among their peers by their unwillingness to give blood.  Flyers tough guy Jody Shelley and the Marlies Ryan Hamilton, on the other hand, bleed if someone sneezes in the front row.

There is a word for those men and it is spoken in sympathy.

“Paperfaces,” said Crabb. “Real  paperfaces.”

The paperface club does not count Franson.

“I think,” he says without a hint of irony, “that I bleed pretty well the same as everyone else.”

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