When asked if he has any hockey scars that stand out more than others, Minnesota Wild veteran forward Mike Rupp
answered without hesitation. After all, the scar across the tip of his nose serves as a constant reminder of the gruesome moment in his hockey career.
“I was playing in the American Hockey League and a scrum broke out,” Rupp said. “An opponent came up from behind, put his glove over my nose, and gave a good tug.”
But this was no standard face wash. “He pulled my nostril off and it was just hanging there,” Rupp said. “I went to the locker room and took 29 stitches.”
The wound Rupp suffered during the AHL game was just the beginning of the story about the scar on the end of his nose. This is because hockey scars are often wrapped in much more than just mere sutures. Every hockey scar has its own unique story, one that is embedded with an origin of pain and circumstance. During a hockey player’s career, scars serve as a physical history of the game that is marked in tiny stitches woven into flesh.
At the time Rupp had his nostril ripped off, he was literally and figuratively fighting for a chance to play in the NHL. And so, the big forward got his nostril reattached and went back into the game and bravely fought the perpetrator. In that moment when Rupp dropped the mitts with his freshly stitched nose in the center of the bull’s eye, he showed everyone on his team and those watching in the NHL his stout level of commitment and toughness were without question.
Years later, Rupp established himself in the NHL and has provided solid veteran leadership throughout his long career. But he never forgot the nostril tearing incident. When Rupp was playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the player that gave him the scar at the end of his nose was added to his team.
“I turned the corner in the locker room one day and there he was. I saw him and had an instant hot flash that I was going to kill him,” Rupp said, as he gave a chuckle. “But he was actually a pretty good guy. We hashed it out over lunch.”
Lunch addled goodwill aside, scars and stitches are an unfortunate part of the game for most NHL players. The sport is played at such a high speed and the physical play is so great that getting cut can be inevitable side of their careers.
“There is not a lot you can do to avoid it,” Rupp said. “Obviously, some guys wear visors. But things happen so fast. Sticks come up. Sometimes your own guys will get you. I have to assume that most guys have gotten stitches in their face at some point.”
Rupp paused for a moment before adding, “Heck, I just got hit in the face by a puck at practice today.”
Between the body checks, boards, skates, puck, sticks, scrums, and the fights, the chances that hockey players will leave the game entirely unscathed are slight.
But for a lot of hockey players, scars are the ultimate symbol of sacrifice. No Minnesota Wild player understands this better than forward Zenon Konopka. During his career, Konopka has amassed a staggering amount of stitches, all largely the result of his team first attitude.
“You’ve come to the right spot for a story about stitches,” Konopka laughed. “I’d say I’ve got about 580.”
Konopka’s face reads like a travelogue and road map. His long journey battling through the minor leagues and in the hard areas of the NHL has left a permanent history of his sacrifice during his life in hockey. It is etched onto his skin. His face and hands are full of scars, contours and markings. Some scars are a decade old while others are brand new. But they all hurt the same.
“I’ve taken two slap shots off my face,” Konopka said matter of factly. “One was in my first year in Wheeling, West Virginia when I was playing for the Wheeling Nailers. Shattered my nose. The other time I was playing in Syracuse. That one left this scar on my forehead. Both were from my own guy and I was in front on the power play.”
Konopka pointed towards a scar off center on his forehead that took 27 stitches to close. That old scar on his forehead remarkably had almost connected lines with his latest battle scar, a 30-stitch cut on the bridge of his nose that he suffered on Jan. 22 from a wayward high stick from Colorado Avalanche forward Jan Hejda.
“One time I got cut for 30,” Konopka said, not skipping a beat, “They had to put two layers of stitches. You know when they put in layers of stitches that’s usually a pretty good one.”
But, like most hockey players, no amount of stitches and accumulation of scars will deter how Konopka plays.
“I can’t change the way I play,” Konopka said. “Probably sounds a little crazy to some people. I mean if it opens up, they stitch it again.”
In fact, when Konopka got cut by Hejda’s stick and blood was pouring down his face he didn’t immediately leave the ice. The center made sure to finish his shift.
“I’ve had cuts last close to two months because you keep playing a hard way and it keeps getting cut open. They can do amazing things with stitches now. Like from 11 years ago to now, it’s come a long way. I’ve got stitches 11 years ago that look like a jig saw puzzle. Now, they are real good, and the scars aren’t that bad.”
Minnesota Wild Assistant Trainer John Worley said that the Wild’s medical staff tries to utilize re-absorbable sutures whenever possible. These stitches are naturally decomposed by the body.
“Also, we use a product called Dermabond,” Worley said, “which can be used in place of sutures for smaller, shallow lacerations.”
Dermabond is a topical adhesive that can be applied without the use of needles or anesthesia. This allows for a quicker return to the game for players.
Regardless of the latest medical advances, though, the scars a hockey player acquires during his career are largely permanent. But Konopka sees one upside to that.
“Well, I like to say I’ve got rugged good looks rather than good looks,” Konopka said, laughing. “I mean it adds character.”