The face of the franchise has taken a beating this season. In the last few months, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise
’s face has been cut, stitched, clawed, punched and speared. His mouth has been bludgeoned and he even underwent a brutal partial root canal between periods in Edmonton. Despite his general Captain America appearance, the scars left from the sport are a subtle reminder of playing with pain.
But Parise doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it. He simply shrugs off his playing in pain as merely a part of his job. To the veteran leader, playing through pain is no different than when the office printer gets a paper jam or the morning commute in rush hour traffic. Yeah, it stinks, but what are you going to do?
“It’s all hockey players,” Parise said. “It’s just one of those things.”
As he talked, a thick and ruddy scar was highly visible on his upper lip from a nasty, eight-stitch cut he received during a game against the New York Rangers, when he was inadvertently pitch forked in the face by the tip of Mikko Koivu’s stick. A brand new tooth was gleaming in his lower row, a replacement for the one that got knocked clean out — and he picked up off the ice — by a clearing puck in Edmonton.
“You want to play. You feel like if you can keep going, you keep going,” Parise said. “I got hit in the face. That’s a part of the game. It happens.”
It happens a lot in hockey. Even a casual hockey fan can tell you that in a sports world filled with stories about injured athletes and how they overcome adversity, hockey players hold a special place in the pantheon of pain department.
Hockey players play in pain because it’s a mantra that has been woven into their DNA as players since the game’s inception, stitched into both the fabric of the sport and into their bodies with sutures, bruises and fractures. It is an unspoken and unwavering code that stretches across entire generations and continents, and it tells players to gut it out at all costs for their teammates, for their team, for their family, for their town and for their country.
No player is immune, either. They all feel it tugging deep inside of them whether they heed to it or not. From the bottom man on the roster to the captain, it is in their literal and figurative heart and they all will try to battle through injuries.
It’s in a player like Charlie Coyle who played in last year’s NHL Playoffs despite a massive cut on his lip and two separated shoulders. It’s in Jared Spurgeon taking a shot directly under his chin and trying his best to fight his way back. It’s in Ryan Suter rallying despite the anvil of anguish hanging around his heart at the loss of his beloved father, Bob Suter. It’s in Wild assistant coach Darryl Sydor getting his knee buckled in the Stanley Cup Final when he played for the Dallas Stars and, unable to skate, he dragged himself back into the crease to block a shot.
Players playing in pain is a code that exists on every team in the league and the stories are endless. It’s in Duncan Keith, last season’s Norris Trophy winner, who has won two Gold medals for Team Canada and two Stanley Cups for the Chicago Blackhawks, returning to a game immediately after losing seven teeth…(seven teeth!)…and saying, “Well, losing teeth is a long way from the heart.” Since his injury did not pertain to his central cardiovascular unit, the very source of his life, he played on.
It is in former Dallas Stars forward Rich Peverley, an NHL veteran, who suffered an actual heart attack during a game and had to be revived in the tunnel adjacent to the bench. Immediately after being resuscitated back to life, as he lay there in his pads in the tunnel soaked with sweat and death, asked the Stars coach Lindy Ruff how much time was left in the period and if he could go back into the game.
Parise is a part of this long, storied history of hockey players playing in pain, connected to the old time hockey past of his late father J.P. Parise and his raucous, swash buckling playing style, and to the young players that he’s trying to lead now on the Wild.
This is why he gets eight stitches in New York City and returns to the game minutes later. (Note: When he returned from that road trip he had those eight stitches taken out because they were too thick and he had the cut re-stitched with a thinner thread.) This is why he gets a tooth knocked out, leaves the ice briefly, gets the nerve taken out while he sits in a dental chair in his pads, and then a few stitches are zipped into his lower lip and he starts the second period.
He knows that he’s a leader and his team needs him as they make a strong push for the playoffs.
“At some point in the season, everyone is playing injured,” said Parise.
Young Wild forwards such as Erik Haula are getting a firsthand education on what commitment looks like. And they don’t have to look far for motivation. It’s right in front of them in the locker room and it is scarred and toothless and focused on the big prize at hand.
“Parise playing in pain like that just shows you what this game is all about,” said Haula. “He has such a big heart and I feel like the work ethic he brings and how he carries himself is something to look at. Us young guys are lucky to have a guy like that on our team.”
It’s remarkably, too, that Parise has been so bludgeoned of late and yet he continues to return without a single hesitation to the scene of the crime, the very spots on the ice where he has suffered the most pain.
“He picked his own tooth off the ice!” said Haula. “He shows what guys have to put on the line. It doesn’t matter what happens. Keep battling, keep playing for your teammates.”
In the game versus Edmonton when Parise got his tooth knocked out, minutes later he was fighting for the puck in the crease. The usual post whistle scrum broke out and an Oiler player grabbed him from behind and tugged at his right cheek. Whether it was deliberate or not, it had to hurt.
The very next game in Calgary, Parise scored a goal right on the doorstep, fighting his way in traffic through a thicket of sticks and arms and legs, and celebrated with his freshly acquired Jack O’ Lantern smile. Despite being repeatedly stitched and bloodied, Parise has continued to go into the dirty areas of the ice and scored huge goals in high-traffic, high-conflict spots.
But don’t bother talking to Parise about his super hero efforts, though. He is a hockey player after all and just shrugs it all off. Even the partial root canal between periods is treated with ho-hum ambivalence.
“Getting the nerve yanked out never feels good,” Parise said. “I’m getting kind of used to them. It doesn’t matter, though. Those always hurt.”