Glorifying pain-defying ethos of hockey players not quite so noble anymore

Glorifying pain-defying ethos of hockey players not quite so noble anymore

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.

Paul Martin rewarding Peter DeBoer's faith in NHL return


Paul Martin rewarding Peter DeBoer's faith in NHL return

When Sharks defenseman Paul Martin confirmed reports in January that he was willing to go elsewhere for more playing time, his head coach was insistent that the team would need the veteran blueliner. 

"I really believe we need eight NHL defenseman here," DeBoer told reporters in January (via The Mercury News). "If it happens that he isn't here, then that'll be disappointing for us. I'm not hoping that's where this goes. I'm hoping this goes to a place where he can maybe go down, play some games and keep himself ready, because I know we're going to need eight defensemen."

That's pretty much exactly what's happened.

After clearing waivers in January and playing with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda, Martin was called up ahead of the Sharks' four-game road trip at the end of February. He did not play until last Saturday in Vancouver, when an upper-body injury to rookie defenseman Joakim Ryan, whose play pushed Martin down the depth chart in the first place, created an opening alongside Brent Burns. 

Martin's now played three straight games with Burns, his defensive partner for the vast majority of the previous two seasons. It's the first time Martin's played in three consecutive NHL games all season, and although he hasn't played much (11:53 in average time-on-ice), he's acquitted himself nicely in a sheltered role.

His five-on-five possession numbers (52.78 percent corsi-for; 53.33 percent fenwick-for) are the second-best marks among Sharks defensemen over the last three games. Burns, too, has posted better possession numbers with Martin (47.62 percent corsi-for; 50 percent fenwick-for) during the last three contests than without his longtime partner (43.40 percent corsi-for; 41.67 percent fenwick-for). 

The Sharks have also outscored (3-0) and outchanced (17-16) opponents with Martin on the ice, neither of which was the case in Martin's first three appearances earlier this season. The former is owed to a decent amount of puck luck, as the Sharks have converted on 17.65 percent of their shots with him on the ice, but the latter is an extension of his solid underlying numbers. 

Martin's played the least amount of total minutes among Sharks defensemen since coming back, even as Marc-Edouard Vlasic missed time in two of the last three games, and has barely been used in special teams. His days of averaging 20-or-more minutes a night are likely behind him, but the 37-year-old has played well in a limited role. 

Considering Martin's NHL days appeared to be behind him as recently as last month, his play has been a pleasant surprise. With the exception of his head coach, that is. 

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights

Couture scores in OT, helps Sharks make up ground on Golden Knights


SAN JOSE -- Seconds after almost costing the San Jose Sharks a game with a turnover, Logan Couture ended it with his backhand.

Couture scored 39 seconds into overtime after getting bailed out by goalie Martin Jones and the San Jose Sharks won their season-high sixth straight game, 2-1 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night.

"I was able to make a move on their guy," Couture said. "(Marc-Edouard Vlasic) did a good job of driving their backchecker back and I was able to go far side."

Couture's goal came at the end of an opening shift of the overtime that started with him losing the puck in his own zone, giving Jonathan Marchessault a chance alone in front. Jones got enough of the shot to stop it, and then Vlasic sent the puck ahead to Couture for the winning goal that moved San Jose within seven points of first-place Vegas with eight games remaining in the regular season.

Brent Burns also scored and Jones made 24 saves to help the Sharks open a four-point lead over third-place Los Angeles in the Pacific Division with a game in hand as the Sharks close in on home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

"For us to get a win tonight was important," captain Joe Pavelski said. "Plus, just plant that seed. If we stay hot, you never know, we might be able to catch them and get home ice. We took care of business tonight and we'll try to keep playing well."

Tomas Tatar scored the lone goal for the Golden Knights, who were kept in the game by a sterling performance by goalie Malcolm Subban. He stopped 42 shots but it wasn't enough for Vegas to come up with the win, although he helped earn a point that gave the expansion team 100 this season.

"It's impressive," forward James Neal said. "It's a great season for our guys. Guys came together real quick. A great job so far but we're not done yet."

The Golden Knights struck first on a pretty passing play early in the first period that ended when Marchessault found Tatar cutting through the slot ahead of Justin Braun. Tatar skated past Jones and backhanded the puck into the open net.

Vegas has been dominant when getting off to a lead, posting an NHL-best 31-5-1 record when scoring first heading into this game. But the Sharks carried the play in the second period, outshooting the Golden Knights 18-4 and getting the equalizer on a blast by Burns from the point after another strong shift by San Jose's fourth line.

"We want to be playing really good hockey this time of year and heading into the playoffs. I think that's the goal," coach Peter DeBoer said. "Whether we would have won tonight or lost, I like how we played for most of the game, so that's what I'm concentrating on."

Vegas managed to keep it tied despite the lopsided shot totals, killing off a four-minute penalty to Colin Miller and another late power play that started late in the second.

That penalty carried over until the third period and the Sharks got 25 seconds of a two-man advantage after Brayden McNabb was called for throwing his stick but still couldn't get anything past Subban.

The Golden Knights squandered a power-play chance later in the period when Miller was called for cross checking with the man advantage. That nearly led to a power-play goal for San Jose but Subban appeared to get a piece of a shot from in close to Joe Pavelski to keep the game tied at 1.

"He's the main reason we got the point," coach Gerard Gallant said. "He looked comfortable."

NOTES: Vegas G Marc-Andre Fleury didn't make the trip to San Jose with an undisclosed injury but is expected to join the team for Saturday's game in Colorado. ... Burns became the 15th player to play 500 career games with the Sharks.

Golden Knights: Visit Colorado on Saturday.

Sharks: Host Calgary on Saturday.