Hockey’s Enduring Code of Silence on Player Injuries

Cup'pa JoeI learned this week of the holiday season arrival of a comprehensive (and expensive) collection of ‘Sopranos’ episodes on DVD. All six seasons, packaged lavishly and impressively, and weighing in at an upwards of ten pounds. I was and remain a huge ‘Sopranos’ fan, ever intrigued by the program’s allegedly high degree of wise-guy verisimilitude. But La Cosa Nostra and its loyalty to secrecy has got nothing on the NHL when it comes to player injuries. The league tolerates so secretive a state about the physical condition of its players that last night’s third period at Verizon Center was halfway completed before Joe B and Craig realized that the NHL’s leading scorer hadn’t returned to the game after the second intermission!

So Semin is hurt, and outside of the the team physician and General Manager George McPhee, it’s anybody’s guess as to what’s wrong. His injury isn’t believed to be serious, and he could well play tonight in New Jersey, but that’s not the point. Semin is sizzling, having a career break-through season, and as he’s battled injuries throughout his young NHL career, it’s understandable that there’d be concern about possible recurrence of previous setbacks. We just don’t know.  

Can you imagine if on the Monday after week one of the NFL season the New England Patriots told the world that Tom Brady was out “indefinitely” with “a lower body injury”?

Only late this week did we (sort of) learn about the nature of Sergei Fedorov’s injury (ankle). He should be back in the lineup soon — not that anyone from the Capitals would tell you that. There was this terrific irony last week when Capitals’ defenseman Shaone Morrisonn left a game against Carolina in the second period. Paul Rovnak from the team’s media relations staff moved around the press box informing media of Morrisonn’s suffering a “groin injury” and that he would not be back. Collectively we knew not to bother asking about it in the room after the game — the specificity Rovnak offered (contextually, the revelation of a near state secret) would be replaced by “lower body injury” post-game for the purposes of shielding detail from Caps’ future opponents.

It’s the NHL’s Code of Omerta, and more and more it’s beginning to look needlessly haughty and a relic of the league’s frontier justice days.

Stories are legion in this league, pre-Internet and especially pre-YouTube, of beat reporters being told of a star player’s suffering a bum back when in point of fact his knee was killing him. The old joke is to add or subtract three feet from the stated location of injury to ascertain its true whereabouts. That Fedorov would be comfortable discussing (or have team permission to) the precise region of his injury informs us of its (1) not being very serious and (2) close to being healed.

The NFL of course is engaged in the practice of (largely) full injury disclosure because it kinda values the billions wagered on its games every Sunday, and a reasonable accuracy to its injury reports ensures wagering integrity. I guess we need more wagering on hockey to try and get teams to level with the press and the public.

It isn’t so much that the hockey public has a right to know about injuries; it’s that they’re often left playing ill-informed guessing games about lineups and matchups, and it leaves many of us cold. In such instances we are pushed away a bit from the game we love. There’s a remarkable irony, too, in a league that is perhaps second only to baseball in its preoccupation with stats going quite quiet on players’ basic ability to perform.     

The NHL’s playoffs are where the injury misdirection work by coaches and GMs takes on truly mythic proportions. When the Caps were bounced out of the playoffs in April by Philly the very next morning at Kettler everyone in the media awaited George McPhee’s rundown of the legitimate trauma the GM’s players played with. The details reminded me of the television show ‘M*A*S*H.’

But today, I wonder: how much strategic advantage is truly gained by this shroud of secrecy surrounding NHL training rooms? The protective nature of hockey equipment today is lightyears better than what warriors and retribution artists Gordie Howe and Eddie Shore wore in their day. I don’t deny that hockey’s had a longstanding culture of strategically preying upon skaters weakened by injury. I just don’t think today’s players are anywhere near as vulnerable as they once were.

You may recall that ever so briefly last fall a few NHL players voiced concern about the snug fit of Reebok’s new uniform system. This issue was that protective padding for ribs, for instance, would be more apparent in the new uniforms. But the concern didn’t gain much traction.

There seems to me something distinctly North American about this code of silence in hockey, and so I wonder, too, if the massive influx of European players the past few decades hasn’t further de-legitimatized the need to not whisper a word about injuries. Hockey simply isn’t anywhere near as violent as its once was, and the greatest violence in hockey has always occurred on this continent.

Maybe the league believes that in its secrecy about injuries it cultivates some macho bit of branding for its product. The NHL is known for its clever and successful marketing.     

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This entry was posted in Alexander Semin, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, NHL, Sergei Fedorov, Washington Capitals and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Hockey’s Enduring Code of Silence on Player Injuries

  1. The Peerless says:

    I have no problem with clubs keeping injuries closeted. There is no useful purpose to their disclosure other than some abstract notion of the fan’s “right to know.”
    The NFL, which has penalties for failure to disclose — by category, no less (is he “probable?”…is he “questionable?”) — seems to have the interests of Las Vegas and fantasy leagues in mind with their single-minded enforcement of those rules.
    If George and the physician don’t want to talk? If Alex is keeping mum?. Fine. Their business isn’t in keeping hockey fans up to date on medical reports, it’s to win games. We’ll find out who is able to play and who isn’t soon enough when the teams take the ice.

  2. OrderedChaos says:

    Fair point Peerless. My complaint is that teams seem to intentionally obfuscate player injuries rather than just outright saying “We don’t talk about injuries.”
    Why even have an injury report? Why even say someone’s day-to-day when there’s no way they’ll play for a week or more? I’d rather see a team’s policy be complete injury-muteness than spouting empty phrases that are at best useless, at worst misleading.

  3. ephperson says:

    Very nice article. Thank you.
    How much licensing money does fantasy hockey pump in to the NHL’s collective coffers? As that number goes up, perhaps the pressure to be more candid might increase.
    But even without that, does a team really owe nothing in the way of honest information to the ticket-buying public? Are fans really expected to shell out ever-increasing sums to find out only “when the teams take the ice” whether a favorite player will play? And should a team peddle pricey STH plans by shilling players who may (or may not) have suffered a “secret” injury in pre-season?
    I’m a little disappointed to hear that folks in the locker room don’t even bother to ask about injuries. As though everyone were conspiring together to keep injuries secret.

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