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IN DEPTH: Shot Blockers Anonymous

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
**We are re-running our in-depth article from the 2015-16 season**


"Ovechkin hit me in my ear and took my ear off. They had to sew it back on. That was pretty bad."


Matt Hendricks nonchalantly rattled off some of the crazy injuries he’s suffered during his NHL career. Indeed, while with the Washington Capitals in 2012, Hendricks sustained a gruesome injury in practice when an Alex Ovechkin shot deflected off the glass and rocketed into his head. It severed a good chunk of his ear, which had to be sewn back together.

Hendricks leans forward in his stall, bends and carefully loosens the laces on his skates. What lies beneath those skates tells a story of sacrifice.

He didn’t mean to get hit by Ovechkin’s shot in practice. But now, when he plays against his former teammate, Hendricks willingly steps into the line of fire. Blocking shots is just another day at the office for Hendricks, as well as many other players around the league, which is an often overlooked and under-appreciated sacrifice.
 
BUMPS AND BRUISES

Hendricks' ankle was the size of a cantaloupe.


Not surprising, considering 6-foot-6, 210-pound Dougie Hamilton drilled a slap shot directly into the bone on the inside of his right ankle during the Oilers game in Calgary on October 17. Little did Hendricks know that beneath his skate, the impact of the shot was so much that it caused a gruesome-looking pressure cut, as well as frightful swelling.

That was months ago.

“It still freaking looks like that. It hasn’t gone down,” said Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot.

That blocked shot caused Hendricks to miss seven games.

“That was a tough one. I think that’s the exception, not the rule,” said Oilers forward Rob Klinkhammer. “The majority of times, guys just get hit. It’s a bruise or something and you only need a little ice. He took a huge pressure cut there. That will probably be with him the rest of his life.”

Hendricks brushes off the pain.

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “It hurt, but I really didn’t know I was cut open and stuff until after the game when I finally took my skate off.”

While Hendricks takes an unconcerned tone when addressing that particular incident, pictures of the injury make most people cringe.

It’s unfortunate for Hendricks. He went down when he was being very effective for the Oilers. Todd McLellan recalls that night in Calgary.

“He had a tremendous game,” said the head coach. “We appreciate that block. It’s unfortunate that it kept him out of the lineup for as long as it did. Obviously, the health part of it, for the next week he wasn’t feeling very good. You hope a guy can block a shot and not have to go through that. That’s one of those situations where he’s got one of those wounds and he can show everyone later on and equate it to a shot block.”

Hendricks sits in his stall at Rexall Place. He has to think. What is the worst injury he’s had from blocking a shot?

Anton Lander goes to one knee to block a shot against San Jose. Photo by Andy Devlin.
The Oilers winger, moments before this sit-down, finished regaling the media with a blunt account of his latest close call. In their game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 29, right off a faceoff, a stick narrowly missed his eye, but did leave its mark. Stitches were required on and around his eyelid, and the area now features a distinct yellow hue.

Hendricks is no stranger to the bumps, breaks, bruises, cuts and soreness associated with being a professional athlete. He’s also no stranger to these close calls.

If not for his quick reaction, lifting his stick in defence, a Zdeno Chara slap shot would have caught Hendricks between the eyes. Remember that time his ear was severed at practice? His knees and ankles have taken a beating as well.

His most recent close call convinced him to begin wearing a visor. But there’s no bump, bruise or cut that has convinced him to not block shots.

“Shea Weber hit me last year in the knee, in an area that caused a lot of problems for me for quite a while.”

He pauses.

“My ankles, my right ankle specifically, you saw the picture of the injury I had from the Calgary game. There’s been a lot of problems with that ankle over the last 10 years, just from getting hit with pucks.”

“I had an incident in Colorado where I ended up getting a staph infection in that same ankle. Infection is always a major issue with skates and stuff, bacteria, and there’s a lot of things that go into it. I don’t think of it that much. It’s just part of what I have to do to play this game and help my team out.”

It’s just a part of his world.

“I’ve had good years and bad years,” he said. “I’ve had years where they don’t seem to hurt as bad. You seem to get them in areas where they don’t hurt. But I think the last few years, I’ve been put into more situations to block more shots. I think my numbers have gone up in that regard. Playing the numbers game, you’re going to feel a few more.”
BRACING FOR PAIN

"How bad is it gonna hurt?"


That’s what goes through Darnell Nurse’s mind in the split-second he realizes a shot is coming.

“There’s a lot of things we do on the ice out there that would lead you to think we’re mental,” quipped the Oilers rookie defenceman. “It’s definitely not an easy thing, but as a player it’s something you’ve got to be willing to do.”

While Nurse says he thinks about the pain he may experience upon blocking a shot, there really is no hesitation to do it.

“For players nowadays, it’s kind of like a second nature to get in front of shots and block them or try to get a piece of the puck. Every team does it. I think the first thing that goes through your mind is ‘am I in the lane?’ Then, you’re just waiting to feel it.”

Darnell Nurse (25) skates off the ice, wincing in pain after blocking a shot with his left arm in a game against Winnipeg. Photo by Andy Devlin.
You try to be in the right position. That’s first and foremost. If you can do that, you may save yourself the pain.

“If you’re in good position, you can avoid the hurt part and actually you can avoid the shot blocking part because you can take the shot away and maybe get them to dump it or whatever. It’s the desperation ones that are tough. You’re not as close to the shooter as you’d like to be, maybe you’re further back,” said McLellan.

The moment you decide to put yourself between your net and a shooter, it becomes a waiting game. You don’t have to wait long, but there’s a slight layer of anxiety attached to your decision.

“You try to be in the lane, but you don’t always know. It happens so fast that sometimes you don’t know if you’re actually in the lane. The d-men are so good now that they can change the angle real quick with a little toe drag or side step. It’s actually quite tough to get in the lane nowadays, but it’s a nervous anticipation. You’re just waiting for that sting or hoping it hits the padding,” Klinkhammer explained.

Klinkhammer, who says he’s broken both feet right where the laces are, knows the pain of taking a shot in the wrong spot.

“It hurts a lot. It’s like somebody whacking you with a crowbar. A 95-100 mph slap-shot right on the bone, lots of time that bone breaks. It’s pretty painful. It’s not fun to do.”

Stepping in front of a fast-moving chunk of vulcanized rubber, risking injury, isn’t something for everyone. So why do players do it?

“You know it’s going to hurt, but you don’t do it for your own personal gains, you do it for the team,” said Hendricks. “For me, there’s nothing better than coming back from the bench after blocking a shot. The guys on the bench are patting you on the back and saying, ‘great job.’ It’s about sacrifice. Other guys do it in different ways. Blocking shots is one of the ways that I help.”

Nurse once blocked three consecutive one-timers with the same leg in a junior game.

“Those weren’t fun,” he understated.

Not fun, but he was ready to make that sacrifice. And the reception the wincing, sore Nurse got when he skated to the bench made it worth the risk.

“It makes it all worth it. It makes blocking that shot worth it.”

Pain reliever.

Ice.

Repeat.

Get back out there.
APPRECIATED SACRIFICE

Watching a penalty killer go to one knee
and take a puck off the leg to help negate a scoring chance can be a big lift. When a player blocks a shot, the whole roster can feel it.

“It does wonders,” said McLellan. “First of all, it shows the player has bought in and is completely selling himself out for the team. It creates a real high respect level between coach and player, but also between his teammates. We know that he’s prepared to sacrifice, we know he’s got the courage to do it and we know we can count on him. It’s a tough thing to get in front of a puck that’s going 100 mph.”

Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Ok, maybe blocking a 100 mph slap-shot doesn’t equate to an equal reaction, but it is powerful.

“In the long haul, it definitely is,” said McLellan. “The teams that sacrifice in those situations, more often than not, have a better chance at success. It does wonders for our team.”

Oilers prospects practice a shot-blocking drill at Development Camp. Photo by Andy Devlin.
Every player asked agreed.

“It’s huge. It’s a big boost. It’s almost like a big hit or a fight or something,” said Klinkhammer. “If a guy dives in front of shots and takes one off the ankle or something, everyone knows how bad it hurts. It kills. Nobody wants to do that. It takes a lot of courage. Guys get excited and rally around it.”

Hendricks recalls watching the New York Islanders play the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

“I think of Johnny Boychuk last year with the Islanders,” said Hendricks. “He did a heck of a job blocking Ovechkin’s shots. His team on the bench was sitting there, watching him do that. They killed off a big penalty. The Capitals probably had the number one power play in the league last year, or close to it. He puts it on his back to keep Ovie off the scoreboard and the next thing you know, the penalty is over and the Islanders go down and score a goal. Without the momentum, they wouldn’t have had that.”

The Islanders pushed the series to seven games, ultimately falling to the Capitals. But Hendricks saw how blocking a shot can change a game.

“It’s good because it’s a real energy boost for our team,” said Nurse. “Guys get up when you see them sacrificing their bodies to make plays like that. It’s good for helping out the goalies and things like that. It’s definitely a real relevant thing in the league. You see every team doing it. It’s a good energy boost from doing it.”

Goalies aren’t the crazy ones.

They are well-secured in their extra padding. Stopping pucks is their job. For the players in front of them to do it, that’s a completely different danger.

“The guys that sacrifice their bodies like that and are willing to get in front of a shot, there are some guys like Weber who shoot the puck and some goalies don’t want to be in front of those. You just kind of hope they miss the net,” said Talbot. “For these guys, for the equipment they have, it’s a lot less protective than ours. To have that mentality to jump in front of those pucks, you’ve got to commend them for their efforts. You don’t get too many guys who want to do that. They’re few and far between. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit for that.”

Give them credit or psychiatric help?

“Guys that put their body in those situations then come back and do it again, knowing that could very well happen again, there is probably something wrong with those guys in the head a little bit to want to do that again,” Talbot laughed.

“Those are the kind of guys you need to be successful.”

As Nurse said best, there are lots of things hockey players do that would make people believe they have a screw loose. Stepping in front of shots is just one.

Mark Letestu (55) slides to the ice in an attempt to block a shot against Buffalo. Photo by Andy Devlin.
“I’ve said that to a few guys who, after the game, have bruises the size of watermelons on their back or their legs from taking a shot,” said Talbot. “It’s not an easy job to do. I don’t know what is going through their head when it’s coming because they’re more crazy than I am. I have all the padding, they don’t. For them to want to sacrifice their body like that, it says a lot about them and what they do for the team.”

For the guys who make blocking shots a habit, you can’t be half in.

“When I first got to Washington, I wanted to be a penalty killer,” said Hendricks. “I didn’t get a lot of opportunity right away, but I slowly worked my way into it. I wanted to block shots. There’s a difference between wanting to block it and actually blocking shots.”

Hendricks looked to the leadership of players like Nicklas Backstrom, Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich.

“They wanted to block shots, but they’d also do it,” Hendricks said. “They don’t say they want to block it and let it get by them. They get in front of it every time. You learn from players like that. It isn’t a sense of, ‘ok, I’ve got to get out and block this shot.’ It’s a sense that, ‘alright, I’ve got to be sure, no matter what it takes, that I block it.’

“It’s a mentality.”

If you’re going to make the sacrifice to block a shot and save a goal, you have to commit to it.

“You’ve got to make a decision,” said McLellan. “Are you willing and prepared to sacrifice or are you just kind of getting out of the way? We all like the ones who are willing to do it.”

There are several Oilers players who have shown they commit to the sacrifice. Andrej Sekera leads the team in blocked shots. Eric Gryba, Nurse and Hendricks are also among the leaders.

Hendricks has just had to endure more visible pain than most this year.

“He’s extremely courageous,” said Nurse. “Every game it seems he steps in front of the big ones. It’s a huge boost for us, whether on the ice or on the bench, seeing that. I want to go out there and work for him too.”

“That’s just the kind of guy he is,” added Klinkhammer. “He’ll do anything for the team. He loves blocking shots. He’ll do the forecheck and the fighting and stuff. He scores gritty goals. Those are guys who are great to have on your team.”

In the arena, blocked shots rarely receive the standing ovation a fight, big hit, goals or saves get. But on the bench and in the locker room, those sacrifices are not overlooked or under-appreciated.

Often times, when they can, players who block shots shake off the pain and then the numbness and return to the ice to finish the game. Their team sees that.

“We’re proud of those individuals,” said McLellan. “We’re proud of the ones who block a shot and don’t have to leave the ice. For one that has to leave the ice, get cared for and come back, that’s a special individual and we’re glad that they’re part of our organization.”

A big block is sometimes a game-changer.

“That’s often the difference between winning and losing,” said McLellan.

By Chris Wescott/Edmontonoilers.com
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