Kenneth Ochi had a private dental practice in Southern California and didn’t know much about hockey when the Los Angeles Kings' team trainer became a patient of his. The trainer told Ochi the team needed a new dentist and asked if he was interested in the job. Ochi resisted the overture. He didn’t want to attend 41 games a year for a sport he didn’t follow.
But the trainer persisted, and Ochi eventually took the job. He showed up for his first day of work on opening night last season wondering where this new adventure would take him. It wasn’t long before he learned the answer: places his private practice never even approached.
In the second period of that game, New York Rangers center Ryan Callahan lined up Kings center Anze Kopitar for a check, and as he prepared to deliver it, Kopitar turned toward him. "I came full speed, and next thing you know I’ve got a stick blade in my mouth," Callahan says. "It wasn’t a pleasant feeling."
Parts of Callahan’s gums ripped off. Blood poured from between his lower lip and chin. His teeth were intact, but the area where they meet the jaw would still hurt six months later. Callahan skated off the ice, walked through the tunnel and headed to the dentist chair inside Staples Center. On the way, he took off his jersey and shoulder pads, pulling them carefully over the gaping wound on his face.
He knew the damage was bad based on his reflection in the mirror and the looks on the doctors’ faces. After Callahan was injected with a numbing agent, Ochi pulled on Callahan’s lip to inspect the damage. The gash was at least three inches long and wide enough that light traveled through it. Ochi stuck his finger through it like it was a hole in a donut.
As Ochi examined the wound further, he saw that Callahan’s jaw was exposed, the white of the bone contrasting with the red of the blood. Then Ochi discovered something he had never encountered in 30 years as a dentist.
To work on the teeth of an NHL player is so unlike regular dentistry that it needs a word of its own. Teeth knocked out, gums ripped apart, cheeks sliced open, jaws broken into pieces—whatever dental injury a person can have, an NHL dentist has probably seen it, and more than once.
No other sport has a job quite like a dentist in the NHL. In some games, these dentists simply sit and watch, usually using season tickets provided by the team, waiting for a problem that never happens. In other games, they leave those seats and jump right into medical emergencies the likes of which they would never see anywhere else.
Some team dentists enjoy the game and turn back into dentists when they’re needed. Others watch with trepidation, always worrying about a pending dental disaster. One hit looks brutal and it’s nothing. Another hit looks like nothing, and it breaks a jaw. In the wild nights of NHL dentists, nobody ever knows what’s coming next.
It was the end of the first period of a Carolina Hurricanes-Detroit Red Wings game in December, and Tom Long had left the seat in PNC Arena from which he has watched all but a handful of Hurricanes home games since the team moved to Raleigh. The seats are in the visitors’ corner of the rink and constitute his compensation for being the team’s dentist.
Long needed to check whether all the Detroit Red Wings players’ teeth were still where they were when the game started. As he walked to the visitors’ locker room (his partner covered the home team that night) as he does during every intermission, he wondered what injury could be waiting for him when he got there.
In 17 years as the Hurricanes’ team dentist, Long has seen it all.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for how teams use dentists. Each home team has at least one on duty for every game, and the home team usually provides care for the away team, too. Sometimes team dentists only work on players from their lips in. Sometimes they cover from the chin up. Sometimes they help doctors with facial lacerations.
Long once helped stitch up a nose that had been ripped open like it had a zipper from bridge to tip. The player’s eye was still swollen shut the next day.
Another time, Long was assisting the team doctor and put his hand on a player’s neck to try to stem the flow of blood pouring from it.
When the bleeding didn’t slow, Long pulled his hand back and discovered the neck splayed open. He could see the player’s carotid artery—the vessel that takes blood from the heart to the head. He instinctively looked for a clamp, because if the artery was nicked, even slightly, the player’s life was in danger.
It wasn’t, but years later, Long can still see the artery, pulsating, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
He never wants to see anything like that again. And this night, he didn’t. The "only" problem he dealt with was a Detroit player whose jaw was bruised and swollen, the result of a stick to the face. An X-ray showed no evidence of a break.
Long says the injury was bad enough to send a normal person to the hospital. The player returned to the game.
As a longtime fan of the game, Long knows who the sport’s goons are, and he keeps a close eye on them when they come to Raleigh. He separates them into two classes—heavyweights and the rest.
"When a heavyweight gets involved with one of the 'rest,' then I sit on the edge of my seat," he says. "When the heavyweights go at it, my heart rate goes up because it is usually eventful. …All of us are looking really hard at the guy in the penalty box to make sure he is OK."
Ochi did a double take when he saw Callahan’s exposed jaw because it’s just not normal to see a man’s jawbone. And also because there was something on the bone, something black that wasn’t supposed to be there.
"I’m trying to figure out, 'What the heck is this black stuff?' I’m picking at it, picking at it. It’s embedded in the bone," Ochi says. "I thought maybe he had surgery there or something, and it was residual damage. I said, 'Have you ever had any damage there before?' "
Because his face had a hole in it, Callahan couldn’t talk. He indicated the answer was no. He couldn’t feel much pain because the numbing agent had kicked in. All he wanted was for Ochi to hurry up and get the black stuff out of there and get him stitched up so he could get back in the game.
But first Ochi had to solve the mystery of the black stuff. He called over a team doctor and asked him to take a look. "I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of my colleagues, but I couldn’t figure out what it was," Ochi says.
NHL dentists get their jobs much like anybody else gets theirs, by applying for them and by falling into them, because they really want them and because they get talked into them. They are hockey-lifers, such as Long, who was the assistant captain of Dartmouth’s team in the late 1960s and sought out the Hurricanes job. And they are hockey newbies, such as Ochi.
No matter how they got the job, or their hockey experience beforehand, NHL dentists all soon learn in great detail the havoc players wreak on each other’s faces.
Red Wings dentist Jeffrey Boogren’s welcome to the NHL moment came in the first period of a game shortly after he took the job. He watched as a player reached forward for a poke check. "The puck rode right up his stick and caught him right in the upper lip and just slashed it wide-open," he says. "It just looked like hamburger meat. Both pieces of lip were wide-open."
The team doctor stitched the player up on the outside and left the inside open so it would drain. "When (the player) was getting stitched up, he was making gestures with his hand like, hurry up, because he wanted to get back out there," Boogren says.
Twenty-five stitches later, the player was back on the ice by the end of the first period.
The dentists say that there’s no medical reason a player can’t return to play after most facial injuries, including lost and broken teeth and cut lips. They draw the line at broken jaws or injuries that have long-term consequences. Beyond that, if the player can stand the pain, he can keep playing.
"Hockey players are so freaking tough. It’s unbelievable," Ochi says. "Any cuts around the eye, they don’t want to be numbed up (when they have stitches put in) because it’ll affect their vision."
Jaromir Jagr lost three teeth when he was hit in the face by a teammate’s stick in a game in 2007. He kept playing and scored a late goal as his New York Rangers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. After the game, he gave an on-camera interview with a swollen and bloodied lip and teeth that looked like broken-out windows in a haunted house.
Jagr, now with the New Jersey Devils, recently told Bleacher Report why he stayed in the game: "Any hockey player who wants to do something great, any sportsman, you have to feel like, 'This team cannot win without you.' That’s the mentality. You feel like this team is not going to win if you do not play."
Dentists theorize that the numbing agent or the player’s adrenaline or both dull the pain. And sometimes a player has been hit so many times in the same place he no longer feels pain.
Red Wings left winger Tomas Tatar was cross-checked while playing for Slovakia in the quarterfinals of the IIHF World Championships in 2010. The hit broke three of his teeth. With the Red Wings, Tatar has lost those same three teeth three more times, all because of high sticks. (He jokes that because he’s short, generously listed as 5'10", he’s more susceptible to high sticks.)
He kept playing all four times. The last time it happened, it was late in the game, and Tatar didn’t realize the extent of the damage until the game was over and he took out his mouth guard. "It was like you hit it with a hammer," he says of his tooth. "It was like dust."
But he says because the nerves were long dead as the result of the other incidents, he felt no pain.
In the contest after the bruised-but-not-broken jaw game, Long stopped to watch the action from the mouth of the tunnel, just a few feet from the ice. Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan was crushed into the glass, with his head and face hitting first. "Oh, no," Long thought. He turned around and headed to the locker room, assuming Jordan was hurt. But he wasn’t.
As Long walked away, Tuomo Ruutu, the New Jersey Devils forward who delivered the hit, was sent to the penalty box. It appeared that Jordan’s face shield absorbed the blow rather than his face, and this illuminated a trend in hockey—better equipment and rule changes mean players have more teeth and fewer stitches than ever before.
Dentist Bryan Hoertdoerfer, who makes mouthguards for the Boston Bruins, says he took impressions of the teeth of nearly every Bruin before this season. All but one or two of them had a full complement of their own teeth. Hoertdoerfer also has played in NHL alumni pro-am games, and the dental disparity displayed between young and old players is striking.
Hoertdoerfer sees hockey history in those two sets of smiles. In the early days of the game, nobody wore helmets, not even goalies. Now helmets are mandated for every player, and many guys use face shields and mouth guards, too. Add to that rules against hitting opponents in the head, and the result is fewer facial injuries than even just a few years ago.
And more rule changes could be coming to make the game even safer. "I wouldn’t be surprised if in another 15 or 20 years either mouth guards or a full shield is coming down the road," Hoertdoerfer says.
Until that happens, dentists will continue to have wild nights. Says Anthony Lavacca, the Chicago Blackhawks’ former dentist, "Getting hit with a piece of vulcanized rubber flying at you at 80 miles per hour, nothing’s going to stop it from breaking your teeth."
The last time Ian Laperriere, now a coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, saw his four top front teeth and four bottom teeth, they were on the ice of his home arena, the Wells Fargo Center.
He left them there after getting hit in the mouth with a slapshot in a game in 2010. It appears from a highlight video that a teammate used his stick to slide the teeth to the boards, but what happened to them after that is unclear. "I had maybe one or two dangling, which they had to pull in the training room," Laperriere says.
As Laperriere lay on the training table a few minutes later, teammate Danny Briere, who wasn’t playing that night, walked over. "He was giving me a tap on the leg, but looking away. I started telling him, 'Look at me,' " Laperriere says. "My lips were like a filet, they were wide-open. I started spitting blood because my lips weren’t attached together."
He told the doctors to get to work because he needed to get back in the game. The trainer thought he was joking. Laperriere made it clear he wasn’t. Doctors spent all of the second period sewing his face back together. Laperriere played in the third period and every other game that regular season. In the postseason, his career ended when he was hit in the face again and suffered a broken orbital bone and concussion.
Laperriere says he doesn’t regret getting hit with either puck because that style of play allowed him to have a 16-year NHL career. After he retired, he had surgery to fix damage caused by the first incident. That hurt far, far more than losing the teeth, he says.
"It’s just one of those good stories that we’ll tell our grandkids one day," he says. And this is how that story ends: Producers of the movie This Is 40 needed a hockey player who had lost teeth, and Laperriere was cast in the role. He appeared in a scene in which he takes out his teeth, and Megan Fox tries them on.
The Kings doctor whom Ochi called over peered into Callahan’s black-flecked jaw. "That’s stick," he said.
Ochi grabbed a dental tool called a curette and started scraping. "That probably took, no lie, 15 minutes to dig that stick out of the bone," Ochi says. "You just don’t see that sort of thing."
But Callahan felt it. "That was probably the hardest part of that whole thing," he says. "The stitches and stuff weren’t too bad. But having them scrape (stick) off your jawbone, that was a little uncomfortable."
By the time Ochi peeled off all of the tape and doctors closed Callahan’s lip with 20-plus stitches, the second period was over. Callahan played the third period, and Ochi’s first wild night as an NHL dentist finally ended. Not only was that Ochi’s first game as the team dentist, it was also the first hockey game he ever attended in his life.