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Goldman | ‘Warrior’ culture of NHL playoffs doing more harm than good

Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Every year, there comes the inevitable locker room moment. Gathered around players disappointed from their too-soon NHL playoffs exit, reporters finally learn all the various injuries the team has kept hidden. There are inherent risks to playing through certain ailments, though, all for the sake of short-term success. It raises the question: Should players in fact be championed for playing through these injuries?

It’s not uncommon for hockey players to play through injuries during the regular season as well. For example, there were concerns about Aaron Ekblad when he returned from his concussion late in the season. After suffering his third concussion in 14 months, it was questioned whether he should have returned for the final games of the Florida Panthers’ regular season at all.

After making his return to the lineup, it was announced that Ekblad would again be out after only one game, this time with a sore neck. While the Panthers insisted it was unrelated to his concussion, then-Panthers’ coach Tom Rowe acknowledged that Ekblad returned too soon. “I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t. That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him, but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.”

At the conclusion of the 2017 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, a number of injuries were announced. Once the Boston Bruins were eliminated, they revealed that Patrice Bergeron played through a sports hernia for most of the season.

Bergeron has played through much worse in the playoffs. In the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Bergeron played through a separated shoulder, torn cartilage, and a broken rib which punctured his lung at some point in the series. He explained why he continued to play even with serious injuries.

“It’s the Stanley Cup Final. Everyone’s banged up. Everyone wants to help the team, and obviously I couldn’t do that in Game 5. It was mostly because they were worried about my spleen being hurt, so that’s why we had to go to the hospital. But everything was fine. So it was just the ribs and the muscles and the soft tissue.”

Should the Bruins have allowed Bergeron to continue playing with such severe injures? And should he have been commended by fans, the media, and his team for being “tough” and persevering? How much does a player truly contribute to his team in that condition?

Is there a certain point where a player goes from being an asset to a liability?

Other injuries from Round 1 of the playoffs this year include Mikael Granlund. In Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues, Granlund blocked a shot for the Minnesota Wild and broke his hand. Through his injury, he accumulated two points in the five-game series. When he revealed his injury, he said, “Everybody’s battling something. It’s just a part of playing.”

In Game 3 of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets’ rookie defenseman Zach Werenski was hit in the face with a puck during the second period. Werenski returned in the third period with a full visor to protect his injured face. However, he was unable to play in overtime due to the increased swelling that affected his vision.

Werenski was ultimately diagnosed with a facial fracture that ended his season. But even with such a gruesome injury, he was allowed to return to play for the third period rather than being forced to sit out for the rest of the game.

Even if it was Werenski’s preference, should he have had the option to return to the game? Surely, Columbus would rather have their star blueliner not do any permanent damage to his sight.

San Jose Sharks forward Joe Thornton injured his knee at the end of the regular season, causing him to miss Games 1 and 2 of their first round series against the Edmonton Oilers. When the Sharks were eliminated after six games, Thornton and the Sharks disclosed what his injury was — a torn MCL and ACL in his left knee.

Thornton was not the only member of the Sharks playing through an injury, as Patrick Marleau had a broken thumb, Tomas Hertl a broken foot, Joonas Donskoi separated his shoulder twice in the later half of the regular season, and Logan Couture had a mouth injury after being hit by a deflected puck.

But of those on the Sharks, Thornton’s injury had the most significant potential long-term implications. Despite that fact, he was acclaimed as courageous by his team and coach Peter DeBoer.

“It was as courageous an effort, him doing what he did, as I’ve ever seen. And I didn’t see a drop off in his game. I know the point production wasn’t there. I think there’s some answers for that, including power play and fatigue and some things like that. Until his level drops where he has to take a reduced role, that’s not even on my radar.”

The Sharks’ commending Thornton’s “courage” was published on the NHL’s official website, effectively condoning — and possibly praising — the risks that these players are taking. Is this the example the NHL should be setting? Are they only contributing to this culture?

As much as hockey is players priority, playing with his injury could have had detrimental effects on Thornton’s career. Would it have been worth it then?

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev did not announce the injury that kept him out of Games 1 and 2 of the quarterfinals, but the Maple Leafs did not give him clearance to participate at the World Championship due to a concussion.

It has been asked whether or not Zaitsev was in fact healthy when he rejoined the Maple Leafs for the playoffs, since he had been cleared to play several days before returning to the lineup. The Maple Leafs may have preferred that he not participate in the tournament since he had hectic schedule over the last 18 months (KHL season, Gagarin Cup playoffs, 2016 World Championship, World Cup of Hockey, a full NHL season, and four NHL playoff games) and dealt with an injury prior to those NHL playoff games. However, it is still suspicious since, as touted by the NHL, “players endure all sorts of injuries in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.”

Playing through injury to compete for the Stanley Cup has been celebrated by fans, players, teams, and even the NHL. While the desire to continue at almost any means is commendable, it should not be encouraged. Particularly in the case of more significant injuries, players are risking further damage or long-term effects for the short-term success of their team.

And as much as their selflessness is appreciated, the onus should not be solely on the player to decide when they can return to play.

There needs to be some sort of baseline to determine whether a player can continue to play. The hairline fractures that Erik Karlsson has sustained are an example of an injury that a player may be able to play through, but something as serious as a broken rib should not be permitted. Alternatively, teams could be required to submit confidential injury reports to the Department of Player Safety (that would not be released to other teams) so the responsibility shifts to the league to ensure players do not perform with dangerous injuries.

The NHL has created a culture that highlights what warriors their players are, but at what cost?

The mentality of the teams and players has to change so that players are treated as more than just expendable assets in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

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