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Sitting on sidelines hurts Gorges more than knee

by Arpon Basu
MONTREAL -- A lot of people made the assumption that Montreal Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges had been playing hurt for some time before it was finally announced he would undergo season-ending surgery on his right knee.

But no one could have fathomed just how long it had been.

Gorges revealed Friday that he has been playing with a torn ACL in his right knee since his final season of junior hockey seven years ago.

Now, after playing all of his 509 regular-season and playoff games as a professional on an injured leg, the time has finally come to get it fixed.

"Obviously right now it's tough to swallow and it (stinks)," Gorges said. "But down the road, I'll have a good knee that's 100 percent functional and working better than it has in years. I'll see the light at the end of the tunnel at some point."

It's not easy for a guy like Gorges to watch from the sidelines.

He was the Canadiens' leading iron man with 150 straight games played, once taking a Mike Green slap shot off his head -- leaving a dent in his helmet -- and suiting up for the next game.

Now, he is facing at least six months of rehab to repair the ACL and the meniscus in his right knee after Gorges had it finally lock up on him Dec. 26 in a game in Long Island.

"I think it's something I've always prided myself on, that you just keep playing," Gorges said. "We're paid to play. I love playing, and everyone else will tell you the same thing. The one thing my junior coach told me way back was that you can play hurt, but you can't play injured.

"If it was up to me, I'd still be playing. But it's been taken out of my hands. It's at a point where I'm injured now and not hurt, and something needs to be fixed."

General manager Pierre Gauthier said Thursday night when announcing that Gorges would be undergoing surgery that the team had every intention of re-signing the impending restricted free agent. Ultimately, that may have played a big role in the decision to go the surgery route immediately, because Gauthier wanted to protect a player he plans to have in the fold for years to come.

"The talks that I've had with the team, with Pierre Gauthier, have re-assured me that I'm in no jeopardy of losing what I've done to this point," Gorges said. "I think that was something they wanted to stress to me, that they wanted to look out for my best interests. It wasn't what was best for the team, it was what was best for me."

Gorges said playing with the torn ACL caused him no discomfort whatsoever, that the brace he wore on his knee effectively served as a replacement for the missing ligament. But when he tore the meniscus earlier this season, the knee began compensating in other areas until, finally, it couldn't handle the pressure any more.

"The other parts of the knee were working so much harder to keep everything in place, they just started to shut down," Gorges said. "The knee was kind of telling the rest of my body that enough's enough."

The loss of Gorges -- compounded by losing Andrei Markov to a torn ACL in his right knee earlier this season -- will have very much the same effect on the Canadiens' defense in that all the other parts will have to work that much harder to keep it together.

And perhaps no one will feel the brunt of that more than rookie P.K. Subban, who is replacing Gorges as Hal Gill's defense partner, both at even strength and on the penalty kill.

The thought that the freewheeling Subban would have a regular role on the Canadiens' penalty-killing unit would have been laughable back in training camp -- in fact, as recently as two weeks ago, when he was a healthy scratch for two games straddling Christmas Day.

But Canadiens coach Jacques Martin not only feels Subban is well suited for the role, he thinks this might be the best thing that's ever happened to the rookie.

"I think in reality one of the strengths of Subban is to play good defense," Martin said. "People see him as an offensive player, and that may come, but right now his production has really come on the power play. I think he has a lot to learn offensively, as well as defensively. But to be matched-up and be given a certain role is probably good for him, it will help him focus on his game."

But Martin's defensive scheme is also very dependent on the forwards applying back pressure by getting back to their own end quickly, something he said becomes that much more important now.

And of course, with the shot blocking prowess of Gorges now gone, the burden also falls on goaltender Carey Price to stop more pucks on a consistent basis while the likelihood of facing more dangerous shots increases.

"He's a big part of our hockey team, the last couple of years he's been one of those key shutdown guys," Price said of his good buddy Gorges. "If we stay within our system, if we have guys that are going to step in and play within our system, we can shoulder it as a team."

And Gorges will be watching that team, whether it's from the press box or on television when the Canadiens hit the road, doing everything in his power not to pull the stubble out of his head to deal with the anxiety his inaction is creating in him.

The last time Gorges missed this much time was also in junior with his hometown Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, when he tore the MCL in his left knee and was forced to miss six weeks of action.

He said that experience was one reason why he was so reluctant to sit out when hurt, perhaps refusing to admit he was injured.

"I remember back to that time and I missed a lot," Gorges said. "I was named to the all-star game but I had to miss that game. I was 18 at the time and there was talk of being invited to the (Canadian) World Junior camp, but I couldn't go. I was miserable. It got to the point where I was 10 days or two weeks away from being cleared to play, but I took it upon myself to play anyways. I told the coaches they didn't have a choice.

"When you miss that many games, it eats at you. It's not easy to deal with right now."

That pain, ultimately, may be worse than anything the knee can dish out.
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