Two things happen when a team is eliminated from the playoffs. First, everyone (mercifully) shaves. And second, we get confirmation that a not-insignificant portion of the roster had been playing injured.
It’s a source of pride among hockey fans. Your favorite baseball player is on the DL with a calloused pinky? Well, my guy just skated 20 hard minutes a night for three weeks on a fractured ankle. And he didn’t even tell anyone, because he’s a hockey player, and “he’s a hockey player” is code for “he could kick your favorite baseball player’s ass without breaking a sweat.” We stand in awe of what these athletes are able to endure to take a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, and hold them up as heroes for demonstrating stoic toughness in the face of agonizing pain. But we shouldn’t.
Coaches and management pay lip service to the difference between “playing hurt” and “playing injured,” but come playoff time everyone understands that if your coach wants you in the lineup, you’d better be ready to go no matter what. Players have been pilloried for failing to recover from injuries or ailments at the speed which fans arbitrarily decide is appropriate (Petr Sykora in 2001 comes to mind) while those who come back faster than expected earn praise and respect. It’s natural, and it’s a shame, especially because young fans pick up on that attitude. Kids learn to look up to athletes who play injured, which would be great except that playing injured is an absolutely terrible idea.
We all know this, but we choose to ignore it because we want our teams to win, or because we’ve convinced ourselves that absurdly huge paychecks should come packaged with great personal pain and sacrifice. We are never as selfish as when we demand selflessness from the athletes who compete in the name of our entertainment. That we’ve seen how quickly retired athletes’ health can deteriorate in sadly predictable ways doesn’t seem to deter us from demanding unreasonable levels of ‘toughness’ from active athletes; we don’t seem to truly empathize with these men until it’s too late to be of any use.
Worst of all, though, is how clearly we communicate to young athletes that taking oneself out of a game demonstrates unforgivable weakness. If you don’t play through the pain then you don’t want it enough, you don’t care enough about your teammates, you’re “soft,” with all the nastily negative implications that word carries. Between wanting to please authority figures and not wanting to be labeled as weak, kids learn not to report pain to their coaches unless it becomes truly unbearable. If that seems like an admirable trait in a 25-year-old millionaire (and it doesn’t, at least to me), then it’s a tragic one in a 9-year-old child. Since the 9-year-old idolizes the 25-year-old, we owe it to the child to demand that the millionaire take better care of himself.
And we owe it to the millionaire, too. Amazingly, when it became clear that Ilya Kovalchuk was playing with a serious injury through most of the 2012 postseason, the most common reaction I heard from Devils fans was concern that he might do himself long-term damage… which would be bad for the team in light of the fact that there are 13 years left on his contract. To call that response shallow is to grossly undersell the cruelty of it. Kovalchuk is not a shiny bauble that Lou Lamoriello bought at market – he’s an actual human being who has to live in his body long after he takes off his team sweater for good. Like all professional athletes, he owes the fans effort, dedication and the top limit of his talent; he does not owe us the entirety of his body and mind, nor the decades of his life that follow retirement. Hockey players are not gladiators, despite the puffed-up analogies that analysts like to trumpet. We should neither expect nor want them to destroy themselves in the process of bringing us joy.