There are few sports as violent as ice hockey. From throat smashes to concussions, seeing a hockey player go down, bloody and broken, is rarely a surprise. No player, no matter how well-trained or well-padded, is immune to injury.
Skate blades, hockey sticks, pucks, and high-speed impacts are all sources of damage.
When players are called up to the major leagues, and are up for the NHL draft, there is naught but excitement in the hockey world.
The hopefuls envision long, lucrative careers doing what they love best: playing hockey in front of enthusiastic fans.
Some players do enjoy decades on the ice. These are the lucky ones. For some reason, their bodies have resisted the types of injuries that keep other players benched, traded, and, ultimately, forgotten.
Others are bashed, battered, cut, bruised, sent to the hospital, scanned, operated on, and sent back for more punishment on the ice. If the player is injury prone, i.e. seems to keep ending up on the injured list, then his career can be short and very painful. Unfortunately, there are many issues that can impact hockey players.
Here are 5 of the most common hockey injuries NHL players experience.
We hear the term so often that we can forget how dangerous a concussion can be. Known in the medical field as MTBI, or “mild traumatic brain injury,” a concussion can cause loss of balance, loss of memory, force a player to pass out, interfere with cognitive reason, create headaches, and more.
Depression, Anger…and Worse
Repeated concussions can create rage issues, depression, and even lead to suicide.
Although we have mapped and scanned and attempted to understand the human brain in all its complexity, much of it still remains a mystery to us. No doctor can foretell with accuracy just how a head trauma will affect the individual.
Some injured players return to the game but don’t remember playing. Others walk past their parents without recognizing them. Still others can lie dazed on the ice until they are removed from play.
Like a Car Crash
Car accidents and sports injuries are among the top causes of concussion. Although sports helmets work to prevent this injury, anyone who’s followed sports in the past decade knows that it’s not a perfect solution.
The cost of a concussion is very high and includes time off from work, medical expenses, future brain health issues, and occasionally a forced early retirement from one’s athletic career.
A number of professional hockey players have had to stop playing for the rest of their season or even retire from their sports careers altogether due to the debilitating effects of concussion.
Hockey power forward Eric Lindros was the number one overall pick in his NHL draft class in the early 1990s. He played for the Philadelphia Flyers, the New York Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Dallas Stars in his 15-year career.
Despite a decade and a half in the sport, he was still considered on the rise in the professional hockey world, and fans eagerly awaited his next great performance. However, his career ended too soon, due to his several concussions.
Lindros’ first concussion kept him benched for nearly 20 games. His fourth and eighth concussions also affected his regular season play. Fans find it eerie that Lindros’ jersey number was 88, and he sustained eight concussions (that we know of. Some athletic concussions go undiagnosed).
His younger brother, who also played professional hockey, had to leave the sport early due to a health issue known as “post-concussion syndrome.”
Lindros has been involved in passing concussion-education legislation in Canada.
Andrew Shaw, right wing for the Chicago Blackhawks, is considered fearless on the ice. Some consider him a little too fearless.
He’s known for not backing away from conflict, both during official play and when he just goes nuts, removes his gloves, and begins assaulting other players. Interestingly, he’s been nominated for the NHL trophy in sportsmanship.
Concussion has been a problem for Shaw. In 2018, a concussion forced him to miss training camp. In 2019, he incurred another concussion in a game against the Colorado Avalanche. He was observed for three months and then moved to the long-term injured reserve list.
Those goalie masks look intimidating, frightening, and utterly indestructible. That’s why they make popular Halloween costumes. Unfortunately, if a puck is slammed with enough force, even those face masks can’t keep out the damage.
NHL goaltender Mike Richter spent years playing with the New York Rangers. He also won a silver medal representing the United States at the Olympics in 2002. His skills were clearly at the top of the game. But skill doesn’t make you invulnerable.
One day, Richter took a mighty and devastating shot from an Atlanta player. The puck hit Richter with such force that he not only sustained a concussion but also a broken (fractured) skull.
As if that wasn’t enough trauma to Richter’s head, that same year, he took a violent and painful knee to the head. It was the aftereffects of these injuries that forced Richter to retire from the sport.
Although we don’t associate the sport of hockey with knees and knee-to-face impact, it’s not uncommon. It’s the same in soccer. We’d like to think of it as a low-contact sport, but elbows and knees and other players’ skulls all pose a concussion risk.
When a player is falling, he or she can make contact with a knee, a foot, a hockey stick, a puck, or even a metal skate blade. The player can then be the cause of a pileup on the ice or on the field.
We can’t foretell every possible injurious event; we can only try to reasonably protect against the most likely dangers. Artists love that life is creative and always comes through with yet another a surprise. Professional athletes? Not so much.
Too often, surprise means pain, a trip to the hospital, and exhausting and lengthy rehab. Sometimes it means the instant end to a season or career.
When it comes to bone fractures sustained while playing hockey, collarbones are at the top of the list. Nearly every hockey play puts the shoulders and collarbone at risk. (Not to mention every other part of the human body!)
Depending on the severity of the break, a sling and two months of rest can serve to heal the injury, or surgical intervention may be required.
Although it’s not considered by most people to be part of the shoulder, the collarbone, aka clavicle, is considered by medical professionals to be part of one osteo-muscular (bone and muscle) system with the shoulder.
You may have heard the term “AC joint.” The Achromial Clavicular joint is at the junction of the clavicle and scapula. There are a lot of important bones there, and if you want to use your arm, the AC joint and the surrounding bones need to be in good form.
Needless to say, a broken clavicle shatters the integrity of that entire shoulder system. Unlike country songs that tell us that we can be stronger after a broken heart, once a bone is broken, it will always be vulnerable to re-injury.
Considered one of the NHL’s best players, McDavid plays center for the Edmonton Oilers. He was also the youngest-ever NHL captain when he was elected to that position while still a teenager.
Unfortunately for McDavid and his team, his clavicle was broken during a collision in a game against Philadelphia. McDavid was unable to play for nearly 40 games.
The Washington Capitals right wing took a hard hit in 2019. The clavicle fracture sustained by this player was caused by an allegedly illegal hit from behind which forced Oshie into the boards at speed.
In a game against the Hurricanes, Oshie was cross-checked (hit using the shaft of the hockey stick held in both hands), and that’s when he sustained the broken collarbone.
Oshie had to exit the ice immediately. He had surgery on the broken bone and was declared out of the game indefinitely.
This type of injury usually provides the death knell for the rest of a player’s season.
The ACL is the anterior cruciate ligament, one of the knee ligaments. It can be stretched or torn during sports, creating pain and necessitating a break from the season.
According to the US Center for Sports Medicine, one way to avoid this painful and career-shaking injury is to maintain strong musculature in the legs.
Hockey players naturally have well-developed leg muscles due to the constant ice skating. However, even the strength of these muscles can still let the torque of a bad twist or a jerk in the wrong direction affect the ACL.
Trying to “play through” an ACL injury can create further damage and is never recommended. Some skaters will insist on skating with a brace until the season ends, and then seeking surgical repair at that time. It’s a complicated decision that should be discussed with a doctor.
An MRI is generally required to determine the extent of the damage. MRIs are expensive, but professional athletes are even more so, and thus this is the go-to method to determine many different kinds of professional sports injuries.
This Canadian defensive player was on the rosters of a number of pro hockey teams, including the Montreal Canadiens, the Anaheim Ducks, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, among others.
When he tore his ACL in a game against Nashville, he was expected to be out for the rest of the season. However, he was able to return to the ice sooner than expected. This highlights how differently each person and athlete can achieve recovery.
This forward for the St. Louis Blues injured his knee, underwent surgery, and missed the rest of that season. Then he re-injured the leg during a training camp session before the next season and was out for all of that season, as well.
That’s a long time to be benched for one ligament tear, but that’s how much power the ACL holds over a professional athlete.
He was traded soon thereafter to the Detroit Red Wings. Fabbri has reported that he’s working on playing “without fear.”
Note: if Fabbri had sustained his injuries just two decades before, his career would likely have ended. However, surgical techniques have improved dramatically, allowing athletes who sustain damage to the ACL to often return to their careers.
This Philadelphia Flyers defense player stands 6’7” and weighs well over 200 pounds. It’s hard to believe that a tiny portion of the knee can bring a guy this big down, but that’s often the truth about sports injuries: the smaller they are, the more vicious they can be.
In addition to torn ACLs, consider metatarsal fractures and Achilles’ strains, which can both end a season.
In 2018, Morin had his season cut short with a knee injury. In 2019, he reinjured his ACL, and now his future as a professional hockey player is uncertain.
When your arm bone pops out of the shoulder socket, it’s called a “dislocated shoulder” and can be excruciatingly painful. The Mayo Clinic states that the reason this joint is so prone to injury is because the shoulder is “the body’s most mobile joint.”
Body checks, collisions while racing for the puck, and goaltender defensive moves can all create this injury. So can an awkward fall or entangled hockey sticks. So can fistfights and intentionally violent plays on the ice. Ah, the engaging and multi-faceted wonder of professional sports!
Intense pain and a deformed shoulder area can imply a dislocation. The affected person won’t be able to use their arm normally. X-rays will likely be taken to make sure there are no broken or fractured bones.
It is recommended that the injury be iced to reduce inflammation, that a sling is used to keep weight off the tender area, and that anti-inflammatories be taken. A sports physician may recommend exercises to help strengthen the area.
This right wing player for the St. Louis Blues had to leave the ice during a 2019 game against the Los Angeles Kings. This star player incurred a dislocated shoulder in a battle to take possession of the puck.
Tarasenko was told after the shoulder was treated that he wouldn’t even be re-evaluated until five months had passed. Such is the severity of this injury and the rest required to repair the joint.
This would not be his first dislocated shoulder injury that would require surgery. He had injured the same joint a year previously. According to an NHL orthopedist, the second dislocation of the same joint is very worrying, because with every dislocation, the chances of it happening again rise significantly.
Dr. Rick Lehman states that Tarasenko can be a good player again but may not come all the way back up to pre-second injury level. The doctor says that strength and range of motion are likely to be permanently compromised.
At the time of writing, Tarasenko is on the long-term injured reserve list.
Muscle strain is a real issue for hockey players, who engage in a violent, fast-paced sport in a cold arena.
According to New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery, the twisting moves and bent postures of hockey are responsible for most of the back strains that players suffer from.
The National Institute of Health has assessed thousands of NHL players to determine the causes of groin and abdominal injuries that plague hockey players. The Institute has noticed that these types of muscle strains are significantly increasing in number every year.
And then, of course, there are the hamstring pulls.
The Cold Doesn’t Help
Every athlete knows that he or she must warm up the muscles before play, slowly and properly, in order to avoid muscle pulls. However, ice hockey players play and practice in cold indoor arenas. This means that an initial warm-up is not sufficient.
The athlete must continue to stay sufficiently warm, even while on the bench or in the penalty box, in order to keep the body supple enough to resist injury.
The Detroit Red Wings had to watch Danny DeKeyser be declared “out for the season” after DeKeyser sustained a back injury that required surgery. Tight muscles can put strain on bones and joints, and regardless of where the injury comes to light, it’s likely that the “cause” is the whole system being under too much pressure.
DeKeyser’s immediate future regarding hockey is currently uncertain.
The term “core muscle” is often used in hockey to denote the muscles in the torso and in the back. In Stamkos’ case, an injury was sustained in the region of the groin/abdomen junction.
Stamkos plays center for the Tampa Bay Lightning. This player, chosen first overall in the 2008 NHL draft class, became the top scorer in the NHL in both 2010 and 2012. He’s clearly an asset to Tampa Bay.
In March 2020, Stamkos had to undergo surgery to repair his core muscle injury and was declared out for the rest of the season.
A Few Final Thoughts
In the late eighties, one player had his jugular vein sliced by another player’s skate blade. The player, goalie Clint Malarchuk, remembers thinking, “I’ve got a minute or two left to live.”
He lived, thanks to his trainer’s quick thinking and first aid skills. But he had developed PTSD, which was not a well-understood issue at the time.
The next season brought panic, depression, and anxiety to Malarchuk. Then he put a bullet through his head in front of his wife. Just as miraculously as his jugular injury, Malarchuk didn’t die. The bullet is still in his forehead.
Every Player Faces Potential Life-Threatening Injuries
This is an extreme case of injury and the aftereffects of serious trauma. However, every hockey player must face the possibility of life-threatening injury.
The high speeds of hockey, the hardness of the ice, and the fact that players wear blades and carry sticks are all going to contribute to the danger of the game. Furthermore, the bulkiness of hockey padding can lend a sense of invulnerability to players that, unfortunately, is not accurate.
Violence Has Become Part of the Strategy
It doesn’t help that players are often aggressive in order to provoke retaliation from opposing players. The aggressors hope to get the other players fouled off the ice.
Some fans, too, hope to see violence, either during play or during fights that can occur on the ice.
Whatever the reason, hockey is injurious and looks to remain so into the future. Football has tackles, soccer has header collisions, cricketers take hard balls to the head, and hockey players take crosschecks to the body. Thus far, these are simply facts of professional sport and likely won’t be changing anytime soon.