In an NHL player's domain, the motto is no pain, no game

April 14, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Playing with pain. Hockey players have lifted the practice to an art form.

Washington Capitals strength and conditioning coach Frank Costello, who has worked with track, football and basketball athletes, says the NHL player absorbs more pain than any other.

"I don't know any other athletes who can stand pain the way they do," Costello said. "Everyone thinks football players have a rugged life. But football players know exactly what to expect. He plays on Sunday and then he has a week, more or less, to recover.

"Hockey players play as many as five games a week in which they are constantly slammed against the boards. And then, in between, they practice, and at practice they also get slammed against the boards. Sometimes, their shoulders and backs are so sore, they hurt just to be touched. I don't know any other athlete who could stand it."

The pain is always there. Their shoulders and lower backs ache. Their hands hurt. Their fingers sting. Hockey players ignore it. Some might even thrive on it.

But most of them say playing with pain is not a macho thing. They do it, they say, because they don't want to let their team mates down or because they don't want to miss a game.

"You play 84 games, there aren't too many games without any pain," said Washington's Michal Pivonka. "Every day, you are playing with something hurt."

And now it gets worse, because the games come every other day until the final playoff, win or lose. And the pain gets worse, because the intensity increases and the boarding increases, the checking gets harder and players play unless they no longer can skate or grip a stick.

"Any time you can do a job you love," said Capitals right wing Alan May. "Well, you have the off-season to heal."

Besides, said defenseman Sylvain Cote: "You want to show the team you can play injured. You don't want to give management the chance to wonder about your commitment. This is big business, and contracts are often on the line."

The Capitals have lost 191 man games to injuries this season, meaning that individual players have missed a total of 191 games. Al Iafrate, who suffered a hamstring injury Saturday, will sit out again tonight against the New York Rangers, bringing the total to 192. It could have been worse -- just ask the Winnipeg Jets, whose players have missed 283 so far. And, as bad as those numbers sound, they could have been higher if players had acted like normal human beings.

"How many people do you know who have their heads split open by a puck, take 15 stitches without a painkiller and then go back to work?" said Washington defenseman Paul Cavallini.

"It's going the extra mile, not taking the one shift off or the one game off because of a wrist or an ankle that got us here [to the NHL]," Cavallini said. "There are a million people who should have or could have made it here, but they're not here."

May contends hockey players face so many opportunities for injuries they simply grit their teeth and play with broken fingers and separated shoulders.

"Guys get used to it, and they don't let it hurt them as much as it probably does hurt," May said. "I think it comes from getting injured so many times in a career. The pain is overwhelming the first few times, but then you just get used to it."

But, sometimes, players play because they don't know how seriously they're hurting, and, sometimes, the club doesn't know either.

In Philadelphia, after Eric Lindros injured the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, he came back too soon and found himself sidelined for three more weeks.

"The problem was I didn't feel it," Lindros said at the time. "It's ripped and it's torn and I don't feel it."

Lindros never had had a knee problem like this, so, when he was asked if he was ready to return, he said yes.

"Doctors can't read minds," he said. "I'm like a dinosaur. You can't blame anything on the doctors. They don't tell me how to take faceoffs, I don't tell them about knees."

When the Caps' Pivonka suffered a groin injury at the start of this season it, too, was a first for him.

"I did not know anything about this injury," said Pivonka, who, like Lindros, did further damage with an early return. "I didn't know how it was supposed to feel. I wasn't ready, but I didn't know it."

Capitals trainer Stan Wong sees several sides to the issue, as he listens closely to the players' complaints about pain.

Some players, such as Lindros and Pivonka, fight a combination of adrenalin rush, which can mask a problem, and a lack of knowledge about how an injury should feel.

"There is a lot of trust here between me and the players," said Wong. "They tell me honestly how they feel, and that enables me to take good care of them. But a lot of times our players are so highly motivated to play, they want to play despite what their bodies are telling them."

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