Zach Werenski’s face went viral Sunday, and when you see his face, you’ll think that sentence sounds way worse than it does.
Werenski is the Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman who tried to block Pittsburgh Penguin Phil Kessel’s shot in the second period of the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime victory, only have the puck hit his stick and careen into his face below his right eye. He bled copiously, as you might expect, play continued, as you would surely expect, and Pittsburgh scored nine seconds later, as you would figure given the tone of the series.
And he got stitched up, went back out, and played until the area around his eye, a bright purple trashbag of blood, swelled too much for him to see out of the eye, which is so hockey it is hard to explain it in any other way.
And then there was the picture of him in the locker room afterward, which someone took for him and which he put on Twitter with the legend, “Playoff hockey.”
It was perfect, and it was disturbing, and it was there to remind you, as this photo of then-Edmonton Oiler Taylor Hall from five years ago was, that this is expected of hockey players – all the way down to capturing every stitch for posterity.
All of which has three purposes – to glorify the pain-defying ethos of hockey players, to get lots of attention to the pain-defying ethos of hockey players, and to impress fellow athletes about the pain-defying ethos of hockey players.
And there is good and bad in both of those.
We mention this because, on a more local level, San Jose’s Logan Couture got rid of the mask protecting his mouth, which had caught a puck late in the regular season against Nashville and will probably require extensive dental surgery in the off-season. He did so after meeting with the team’s designated dentist before warmup, mostly so he could say he was getting rid of the plastic cage on his helmet that he said was impairing his ability to see the puck.
“Figured enough damage has already been done,” Couture said afterward. “If I get hit again, I’m just the unluckiest guy in the world.”
Yeah, it’s just a head. What’s the big deal?
The culture of celebrating facial and head injuries in hockey has always been the most cringeworthy part of the sport. It is as if the photo certifies a player as officially tough to the point of insanity about the one part of the body that should be most protected and concerned about.
Knowing what we know and are continuing to learn about CTE and other brain injuries, though, the rush to return to action (Werenski) or to get rid of protective equipment (Couture) doesn’t seem quite so noble any more. This isn’t bruise porn, which some people suggest it might be, but it is a new default position for head injuries, as in, “Hey, cool, blood! But what about that brain?”
It takes a bit of the vicarious fun out of the whole process.
Of course, the problem with this argument is that not being doctors, we could not know just how severe the internal injuries Werenski were, or weren’t. As it turns out, he has facial fractures as a result of the puck and will miss the remainder of the season, which given that Columbus is down 3-0 may be only two days.
All we knew he bled well, but we don’t know if he went through a full concussion protocol or just got stitched up like a sock. For all we know, he was clear as a bell mentally except for that softball he was smuggling under his cheekbone. Without having been the examining physician, we’re not properly equipped to announce that Werenski’s care was insufficient or pressured by the culture of “playing while grotesque.” It might have been, and it might not have been, and that’s as definitive as anyone can be.
But I do know that acts of bravado when it comes to the head aren’t as much vicarious sanguinary fun as they used to be, for a very good reason. Because brains aren’t teeth, or bones, or ligaments. They are a special category, and should be treated in everyone’s thoughts as such.
If the worst thing about Zach Werenski’s injury is that he kind of broke his face but his brain remains fully unharmed, well, he's lucky. For now, anyway. But it’s not an automatic default anymore, this “ooh, look, his face looks he soaked it in red wine for a week” thing.
Of course Zach Werenski is tough, and he proved that long before Sunday. But it’s also his head attached to those stitches, so being that cavalier about it isn’t as much of a hoot as it used to be.
At least it shouldn’t be.