Don't Put Me In, Coach: When Should Injured NHL Players Stop?

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Don't Put Me In, Coach: When Should Injured NHL Players Stop?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Regardless of skill level, all hockey players can boast one thing: They're some pretty tough dudes.

Just ask this kid who ate the boards for breakfast .

Or ask Sami Salo who almost lost any hope of future kids .

Pushing aside the tough exterior that is worn like a shield, these are still athletes who are vulnerable to injury. Injuries, unfortunately, happen all too often in this fast and brutal sport.

Interesting enough, the media and fans may never hear of a player's injury until a season is over. In true tough guy form, many NHL players will play through an injury for reasons that include personal pride and to do their job on the team.

These reasons are admirable not only because of the mental toughness required to fight through injury pains, but the selflessness that drives this behavior in the first place.

How much easier would it be on a player to announce that he's injured and cannot partake in daily practices chock-full of repetitive drills or the intensely physical games, especially during the playoffs when each hit is that much harder and each blocked slap shot stings that much more?

The fact that many of these players are so willing to put their team duties before their physical health is astonishing.

But is this a smart move, playing through injury knowing that it could become more serious and possibly harmful to the player's career?

Even before the idea of long term issues comes to mind, is it not wiser that the player rest and heal rather than play with pain and possibly risk making huge a mistake while on the ice?

Only a fine line separates the two perspectives, but it's a line that is constantly crossed by both average and great players of the game.

Just this passed season, Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf was questionable to play for Team Canada in the Vancouver Olympics after he sustained an ankle sprain prior to the games.

Despite the injury, Getzlaf claimed he was healthy enough to play in the Olympics and became a part of the Gold Medal winning team. He rejoined the Ducks but would ultimately continue to aggravate his injury until it progressed into a partially torn ligament between the tibia and fibula in his leg.

He spent the rest of the season riding the pine pony.

Getzlaf managed to walk away from the season with a gold medal, but, like the dozens of NHL players who end the season and announce that they were injured, at what cost was this sacrifice? Just because an injury heals doesn't mean the player will be back to 100 percent strength.

We will never know what would have happened. The playing-injured game is riddled with "what if's?"

What if a player hurts himself even more? What if sitting out will make matters worse for the team? What if the player makes a fatal mistake?

For NHL legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard, his excessive injuries were a red flag for General Manager Tommy Gorman but the Rocket's sparkling goal-scoring made him a necessity on the Montreal Canadiens.

The risk of keeping him on the roster paid off in the 1952 Stanley Cup Semi-Finals against the Boston Bruins.

After sustaining a head injury which later developed into a concussion, the Rocket, with blood caked on his head that was wrapped in a bandage, scored arguably the most beautiful goal in hockey history. The goal would become the series winning goal.

The moment lives in infamy, despite the sweep by the Detroit Red Wings that followed in the Finals.

It was a huge risk for the Rocket, especially if he had absorbed another heavy hit to the head after returning. What a tragedy that could have been, especially since the Canadiens left the playoffs empty-handed.

Steve Yzerman, another hockey legend, fought a similar battle with his knee which he re-aggravated in the 2001-2002 season and missed 30 regular season games.

 His knee wasn't any better in the playoffs, but he continued to play through the pain and he led the Wings to the Stanley Cup. Even on a bum knee, he placed second in scoring in the playoffs, behind Peter Forsberg.

If Yzerman opted to sit and rest his knee to prevent any further injury, it is doubtful whether the Red Wings would have won the Cup.

Of course, we'll never know.

Just recently, Sidney Crosby opted to make that choice to take a seat when the Cup was on the line.

In the 2009 Stanley Cup Final, Red Wings forward Johan Franzen lined up Crosby's knee along the boards halfway through Game Seven. Crosby left the ice and returned only for a 20 second shift before deciding that he would sit out the rest of the game.

The Penguins went on the win the Cup, but the questions remained about Crosby's dedication to the team and winning because of his decision.

 Crosby told the media that he made a choice based on what he thought was best for his body and the team. In the end, his choice leaned in his favor because of Max Talbot's and Marc-Andre Fleury's heroics that game.

Would the consensus have been similar if Crosby played and forced a turnover that lead to a Red Wings goal? Or if he didn't play and the Pens still lost?

 The situation is difficult because there is no way of having a do-over if a player's decision to play or not to play was the wrong one.

Most importantly, we are talking about players' lives and their futures in the game of hockey. Ultimately, each player has to make his own decision of what he will do when injured.

Some will fight on and play injured, risking mistakes on the ice and further injuries. Others will play it safe and try to heal before the injury can get worse, but they must then vacate their place on the team which, depending on the skill level of the player, can still affect the outcome.

In both circumstances, the approval of the player's decision seems to be very dependent on the result of the game.

When fans and players have seen the likes of the Rocket, Yzerman, and Mario Lemieux, all fantastic players who played through serious illnesses and injury, it's difficult to excuse any other player for taking the easy way out.

But looking at the tough guy attitude most of these players take on and the substantial number of injuries reported at the end of the season, it's pretty clear which avenue has become the common road.

I don't think we can expect anything less from hockey players.

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