Playing through pain
by Lucas Aykroyd|08 JUN 2019
Zdeno Chara, who led Slovakia to silver at the 2012 Worlds, has shown a remarkable tolerance for pain as the captain of the Boston Bruins.
photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
The Stanley Cup playoffs are full of painful moments. And in this case, we’re not talking about the pain Boston Bruins fans felt after St. Louis’s Tyler Bozak tripped up Boston’s Noel Acciari, which led directly to David Perron’s third-period winner as the Blues triumphed 2-1 in Game Five.

No, it’s all about the decision of Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to play despite reportedly having a broken jaw. Chara, 42, took a deflected puck to the face in Game Four. That didn’t stop the legendary Slovak defenceman from suiting up on home ice on Thursday with a full face mask and logging 16:42 of ice time with four hits.

Normal human beings might well refrain from swimming or jogging right after breaking their jaws, let alone competing in an ultra-physical environment for North American hockey’s biggest prize. Yet Chara – a 206-cm, 116-kg veteran who became the second European NHL captain after Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom (2008) to hoist the Cup (2011) – is anything but normal, from his stature to his determination.

Chara’s teammates, in keeping with traditional hockey culture, praised him. Leading playoff scorer Brad Marchand said: “You can’t teach that. You can’t push that on people. It’s either in you or it’s not. He’s able to play through pain, a lot more pain than most people, probably anyone in this league. It’s incredible to see.” Goalie Tuukka Rask added: “It shows his character. It takes a lot for him to not play. He’s got some big balls.”

It’s certainly not the first time NHLers have elected to keep going in the playoffs despite painful injuries. Here are just a few other memorable examples.

1952: In Game Seven of the semi-finals against the Bruins, Maurice “Rocket” Richard collides heavily with Boston defenceman Leo Labine and is taken off unconscious on a stretcher. Bloodied and bandaged, “The Rocket” returns in the third period to score the winner on goalie “Sugar” Jim Henry.

1964: Bobby Baun of the Toronto Maple Leafs blocks a hard Gordie Howe drive with his ankle and is forced to leave Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. However, he makes a legendary comeback that night to beat goalie Terry Sawchuk with a point shot in overtime, forcing Game Seven. Baun also plays in that 4-0 win as the Leafs capture their twelfth Stanley Cup.

1994: Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy shows signs of appendicitis during the first round against Boston and spends Game Three in the hospital. However, he returns for the last four games of the series, including a 60-save outing in Game Five, and has his appendix out after Montreal’s elimination.

1994: Captain Trevor Linden of the Vancouver Canucks plays the last four games of the finals against the New York Rangers with broken ribs. Teammate Cliff Ronning later recalls this valiant sacrifice in a losing cause in a 2008 interview: “You can’t imagine what it’s like to hear your captain, in a room down the hall, screaming at the top of his lungs as they injected the needle into his rib cage. Knowing him, he probably thought we couldn’t hear. He would then walk into our dressing room like nothing had happened.”

2013: Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron plays in Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals versus the Chicago Blackhawks with a separated shoulder, a broken nose, broken ribs, and a punctured lung. Despite the IIHF Triple Gold Club member’s raw determination, the Bruins lose this deciding game 3-2.

Understandably, it’s hard not to be inspired by such courage. It happens in both men’s and women’s international hockey too.

For instance, in last year’s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship final in Copenhagen, top Swiss defenceman Roman Josi logged more than 28 minutes in a 3-2 shootout loss to Sweden – despite having broken his hand in the semi-finals against Canada.

And in the 2014 Olympic women’s gold medal game in Sochi, assistant captain Hayley Wickenheiser had a broken foot and defender Meaghan Mikkelson had a broken hand when Canada staged a thrilling late rally and beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime.

At the same time, it’s worth sounding a cautionary note. The long-term health and welfare of players has to take precedence. This is particularly true when it comes to concussions. It’s why IIHF President Rene Fasel has stated repeatedly: “There is no such thing as a clean hit to the head.”

Times have changed. Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks received kudos after he took a head shot from New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens and bounced back to score the winning goal in Game Six of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals. Philadelphia Flyers power forward Keith Primeau was lionized for playing through concussions during runs to the 2000 and 2004 conference finals.

However, both stars had to retire prematurely – Primeau in 2006 and Kariya in 2011 – due to the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome. Primeau later said: “If I had to do it again, I’d say I’d do it differently, but that’s all knowing what the end result is.”

Remember, while Chara has played 21 NHL seasons, most NHL careers are far shorter, less storied, and less lucrative. Any NHLer not named Gordie Howe or Jaromir Jagr is still a young man when he hangs up his skates.

There are times and places for players to decide how many painful moments they can tolerate in search of glory. Still, it’s important for doctors, teams, and leagues to be proactive as well and ensure their players can enjoy happy, healthy, and productive lives after hockey.