May 26, 2010, 11:13 AM EDT
One of the
first things I wrote for this site was an ode to Sami Kapanen, which was inspired by the courage and selflessness he showed
in getting off the ice after absorbing a brain-rattling hit from Darcy
Tucker against the Maple Leafs in the 2004 Eastern Conference
Semifinals. To this day what amazes me about that play is that Sami got up because that’s what hockey players do. He certainly did not have his wits about him enough to
process the implications of getting up. He got up because it was his
natural hockey playing instinct. Hockey players just do that sort of
thing. It’s in their DNA.
In thinking about the current Flyers
playoff run I keep coming back to that same realization that hockey
players are just a different
breed. We’re not like them. Their ability to
absorb and withstand pain is beyond anything I could possibly imagine.
Shrugging off broken feet, brain contusions, pucks to the face, and the
hush-hush upper and lower body injuries has reached the point of being
cliché. Think about it – when a player suffers an injury requiring 70
stitches and he somehow returns to the ice 10 minutes later we simply
shrug and say “he’s a hockey player”.
No one personifies this more than
Ian Laperriere. As you know Lappy took a frozen disk of vulcanized rubber
moving at upwards of 80 MPH to the face. The shot broke his orbital
bone, aka broke his face, and caused bruising of
his brain. Let me say that again…he suffered a
bruised brain. He couldn’t even see afterwards to the point that he
asked Flyers trainer Jim McCrossin whether he’d lost an eye. You know how
you look at the injury report in other sports and it typically says
something along the lines of “Player X: doubtful knee”, or “Player Y: questionable back”? Yeah, Lappy’s injury report would have read “Laperriere:
out brain”. You will never see something like that
in a sport other than hockey.
The injury was horrifying. He literally
left his blood on the Prudential Center ice that night. I cannot imagine
there was single person who saw that injury and did not think that his career was over. He’s 36 years
old. He’s played over 15 years in the NHL. He’s had a terrific career. No one could have blamed him had he simply
decided to hang it up.
But that’s not what hockey players do. The most you
could get him to concede was that he’d begrudgingly agree to wear a
shield next season. Oh, and he volunteered that when he dropped the
gloves to fight next season he’d simply remove his helmet first.
Naturally, he expressed some worry about his life post-hockey, and his
ability to enjoy being a husband and father, but he was already
contemplating how he would adapt to wearing a shield. Again I return to
the familiar refrain “he’s a hockey player”.
So what does he
do after suffering the broken face, the brain bruise, the fear that he’d
lost an eye, and the prospect of losing the ability to fully enjoy his
family? He continues to work out with the hope that the team advances to
the point that he could rejoin them. Simply wanting to come back from an injury like that is beyond anything I
could ever imagine. My retirement papers would have been at the league
office the next day. Lappy? He’s dying to get back out there.
Now at no point
did I actually think he’d make it back. However, assuming he did the
unthinkable and actually did play again there was no way in a million
years he’d resume his shot blocking, forechecking, penalty killing ways, right? Wrong. Almost
immediately after stepping onto the ice in Montreal he was in a
wrestling match along the boards with Roman Hamrlik. During Game Five he was back to laying out in front of shots from the point. He has zero fear. He’s
completely deactivated the flight part of the fight or flight response.
He gleefully reaches out to touch the hot stove over and over again.
we like our athletes bruised and bloodied. We demand maximum effort. We
insist they care as much as we do. Hockey players
willingly give up their bodies, their teeth, and their health in pursuit
of the Stanley Cup. Like us they just care so damn much. Unlike us they
are wired in such a way that they’re willing to withstand and play
through unimaginable pain and injury. Ian Laperriere and Sami Kapanen
are two of the most courageous athletes I’ve ever seen. They embody everything this city loves about
its athletes. They are
fearless. They are relentless. They are hockey players.
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