Down in mouth? Not this Cap

Ken Rosenthal

April 17, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

LANDOVER -- Some people hate going to the dentist.

Then there are hockey players, who couldn't care less.

All right, maybe that's an exaggeration. But the Capitals' Michal Pivonka didn't just live to tell the story of how he lost his teeth in a playoff game 10 days ago. He returned the next period.

Not impressed? Consider the circumstances. The Caps were on their way to a 6-0 defeat. It wasn't like Pivonka burst out of root-canal surgery to score the tying goal.

Laughing gas could explain his mad -- back to the ice, but five shots of novocaine provided his only relief. Numb that mouth, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

"I didn't feel it," Pivonka explained Monday after a workout in preparation for the opener of tonight's Patrick Division finals in Pittsburgh. "If you don't feel it, you can play."

This is hockey logic, twisted but irrefutable. Fans love arguing about which sport has the best athletes. They never debate about which has the toughest.

Hockey wins, teeth down.

Actually, the gap-toothed NHL smile is becoming something of an anachronism, for most players now wear mouthguards. Pivonka, 25, refuses. But he got hit so hard, steel jaws might not have helped.

His injury occurred in Game 3 against the Rangers. Pivonka was standing near the boards when New York's Darren Turcotte spun around and accidentally jabbed him in the mouth with the aluminum shaft of his stick.

The blow shattered a permanent four-tooth bridge in Pivonka's upper jaw and also chipped three lower teeth. Team dentist Howard Salob described the latter as "badly broken, less badly broken and least badly broken."

Pivonka slumped into a dental chair in the trainers' room at the Capital Centre. The second period was almost over, and the Rangers led 3-0. Salob rushed from his seat and immediately went to work.

"The worst injury I've seen in 14 years with the Capitals," he said.

One of Pivonka's upper front teeth was severed at the gum inside the bridge, leaving a nerve exposed. Salob removed the nerve, and quickly inserted a temporary filling.

Another upper tooth, Salob said, was "hanging by the gum." The dentist removed the crown (the part you can see in your mouth). Before you knew it, the Czech -- a five-year NHL veteran -- was back on the ice.

"The fact he even went out is amazing," Salob said.

Not that Salob was done. After the game he and Pivonka headed to his office a half-mile from the arena. "We had to do something to make him look halfway presentable," Salob said.

To which Pivonka replied, "My wife doesn't care."

With his daughter Debra, 15, serving as dental assistant, Salob worked from 11:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. He inserted temporary caps, covering the damage and enabling Pivonka -- the Caps' third leading scorer this season -- to function properly.

Two days later Pivonka was back in his office. Salob sealed the chipped areas of his lower teeth. Pivonka played that night, but he'll still require 8-10 hours of additional treatment once the Caps' playoff run is complete.

"When we get done, he's going to give me nice teeth," Pivonka said, flashing a smile that would make Hannibal Lecter cringe. "Right now they're short. But better that than just a hole."

Pivonka, who had two goals and two assists in the six-game elimination of the Rangers, conceded he might not have played the third period of Game 3 if this was the regular season.

The gutless swine.

Imagine if Pivonka was a baseball player -- he would have been a lock for the 15-day disabled list. The NHL offers no such recourse; someone else just takes your place. For all anyone cares, the roster can expand to infinity.

Ever hear of a hockey player with a rotator cuff injury?

Didn't think so.

"I wouldn't say baseball is easier," Pivonka said. "But it's easier."

Of course, his $150,000 salary is the going rate for a utility infielder, but after finishing with a career-high 70 points, he figures to earn a substantial raise.

Last year the Caps were disappointed he didn't score a goal in the playoffs. This year he elevated his game, and his return from the dentist's chair left a lasting impression.

"It showed he's come a long way," Caps coach Terry Murray said proudly. "He's developed a lot of mental toughness over the years he has been here. He's not a European player anymore. He's an NHLer."

Congratulations are in order.

Perhaps even a visit from the tooth fairy.

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