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Ouch! Injuries and the Game

August 13, 2011 General No Comments

Ouch! Injuries and the game
By Andre Palai
Oct 30, 2001, 07:06



A coach’s worst nightmare is seeing a barrage of bodies being tended to in the trainer’s room. From superstars to role players, the area athletes least like to visit—but the one that always seems most crowded—is the medic ward. Injuries are part of the game. It’s a partial price an athlete pays for competing to be the best.

A team’s successful forecast can crumple like brittle bones if it becomes decimated by injuries. How many times have we seen teams get off to a good start and then, halfway through the season, become cellar-dwellers due to a rash of injuries? It happens year after year.

A pulled groin or hamstring can put a player on the shelf just as long as a broken bone. While the latter appears worse, both are significant because no matter the sport, a pulled muscle severely limits an athlete by taking away critical flexibility and mobility. If not given proper care, pulled muscles and ligaments can become chronic, often causing a player to be injured more frequently. That, in turn, translates into less playing time and often forces an organization to fill the void with a less experienced player.

Broken bones on the other hand, while they take longer to heal and can sideline a player for several weeks, usually happen less frequently.

“Accidents,” says Anaheim Mighty Ducks trainer Blynn DeNiro, are the primary cause of injuries. “There’s no preventing accidents. When you have big bodies flying around and people running into each other, something’s got to give. It’s usually the weakest link. That’s the nature of the beast,” explains DeNiro.

With hockey being a fast-paced collision sport, the physical demand on a player’s body is more significant than those in other sports. The normally lengthy schedule, and the ability to perform two tasks at once are major factors in testing a player’s overall physical fitness.


A two-sport sport

“Hockey to me has always been two sports. First it’s skating. You have to be a tremendous skater. Then it’s the game. The hockey. So there’s two things involved, so that makes it more taxing mentally and physically,” says DeNiro.

“I think you have to look at the travel and back-to-back games,” DeNiro continues. “A lot of times these guys will play three games in four nights. The body has no time to recover.”

Players are paid to be in top shape and perform consistently night in and night out. But as the years go on, a player’s body changes, and becomes less durable. Even the most physically fit athletes are not immune from injury. Rick Tocchet, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, and former NHL great Bobby Orr have all been felled by injury during their careers. Many players, like Orr, former Buffalo Sabres star Rick Martin, and Philadelphia Flyers great Bernie Parent, have all had their careers cut short by disabilities. With competition increasing to new heights, the body eventually breaks down and cannot take the pounding it once did when it was young.

Body parts age just like humans do. Joints begin to stiffen. Ligaments are not as flexible, and muscles require more effort to keep strong.

“At 25, everybody starts to notice that they’re sore a little longer. Things don’t heal quite as fast. It takes longer to stretch, longer to condition. By the time you get to 30 your healing processes begin to slow. That’s the nature of the beast and you have to accept that,” says DeNiro.

With fat cat contracts and outside pressure, professional athletes cannot call in sick or decide to take a day off at leisure. There are no sick days in pro sports. Even if there were, most athletes—certainly most hockey players—would rather play hurt than sit out. Call it macho, call it resilient; the fact is, in order to survive in pro sports you have to play hurt. It is a way of life and is part of what sets them apart from the common man.

Sometimes, however, we hear of an athlete reaggravating an injury, or possibly coming back to soon. Who is to blame? Who makes the decisions on when the player should return to action?

“You can point the finger at a coach or point the finger at a trainer or doctor, and a lot of times you point the finger at the athlete. There isn’t one person. Usually it’s a total decision. If everybody knows what’s going on, you’re gonna nine times out of ten make the right decision,” explains DeNiro.

“Sometimes it is trial and error, and you do go too soon. Sometimes you also wait too long. It’s a fine line. There’s no set date of return because everybody’s healing rate is different and everybody’s injuries are different. A lot of times it’s a guess.”

A cold cure

DeNiro has seen his fair share of battered and bruised players over the years, having spent four years with NFL’s Rams prior to joining the Mighty Ducks. He responded adamantly with one word when talking about the most often used remedy in treating injuries. “Ice, Ice, Ice.” The exact same thing the players skate on.

“That’s an initial treatment, because it stops the swelling and tissue damage and decreases the pain. You can make less mistakes with ice than anything else. It’s the treatment du jour, as we say.

“We have a lot more technical muscle stimulating units that deal with pain and swelling, but ice is still number one. It always has been and always will be, because it works.”

Once a complete diagnosis takes place regarding the extent of an injury, a player is then subjected to minor or intense rehabilitation, depending on the severity of the injury.

Surgery is often a last resort. Most players, given their druthers, would prefer to wait until the off-season to have surgery rather than spend a significant amount of time on injured reserve. Sometimes they have no choice, like Buffalo Sabres center Pat LaFontaine, who missed all but 22 games this year, and most of the prior season, due to a knee injury.

There is no such thing as injury prevention. Accidents happen everyday. Just listen to a Los Angeles traffic report and you will agree. But there are ways to help reduce the likelihood of being hurt.

Take the time to stretch before engaging in play. Many people overlook stretching because it’s boring. They think their muscles will loosen up during the game. Instead, they are actually increasing their chances of pulling something during the course of play. Take, for example, DeNiro’s analogy. “Look at a cat. Cats are always stretching. They don’t have a lot of muscles injuries and they’re very flexible.

“Stretching is essential. It’s not easy to do, but you have to push yourself. The older you get the more important it becomes,” says DeNiro.

“For the amateur athlete it becomes very important for working day to day, because you don’t want a strained back or pulled muscle to cause you to hobble around in pain all week.”

Coaches at the amateur level need to develop a routine that makes stretching out fun. “Don’t make it work. Make each kid involved. Change up the routine by coming up with something new everyday. Then it becomes a challenge for the kids and they keep interested.”

A thorough routine of stretching makes for a more flexible body and can enhance a player’s longevity.

Having the proper equipment is a must for ensuring a player’s personal safety. Make sure each piece of equipment fits properly and provides proper protection for the designated area. Do not buy from the bottom of the barrel. Spending a little more on equipment could keep you playing rather than waiting to see the doc.

You cannot be at the top of your game if you are not healthy. And athletic health starts by exercising the body in the form of stretching to ensure maximum performance from each muscle, ligament, and joint.

Players who have poor work habits off the ice tend to be at a disadvantage on the ice.

DeNiro offers this advice to those that want to excel in sports.

“A good quality athlete, at any level, is the one who can make the adjustment to the changes in his body and accept them and deal with them.”



Andre Palai has been playing hockey for more than 20 years.

This first appeared in the 07/1995 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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