“Hockey Tough” Is Just Regular Stupid

Originally written in May 2017 as a final assignment for Interpretive and Editorial Writing. 

Hockey players are known as the toughest athletes compared to ones of other sports, because of the toothless, bloody image they perpetuate and the injuries they play through. Fan culture, and even the culture in locker rooms, praise this, calling it “hockey tough.”

On locker clear out day each year, head coaches supply a laundry list of the players on the roster who dealt with injuries and continued to play. This season, there have already been two instances of players who had surgeries on pre-existing injuries as soon as their season ended. There is no such thing as “hockey tough” because applauding players for playing entire playoff runs with fractured ankles is not something to be normalized. When it’s a matter of a player’s health and wellbeing, heroics do not matter.

During game four of this year’s Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets playoff series, Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski took a puck to the face. He was able to skate off under his own power, but his face was bleeding, and he was clearly in pain after being down on the ice for at least 8 seconds while the play continued around him.

Werenski returned to the game in the third period, face bruised, stitched up and bloodied, wearing a full face shield. When the game ended tied and went into overtime, Werenski’s face had become so swollen that he had no vision in his right eye. At this point, he had no choice but to exit the game. The next morning, coach John Tortorella announced Werenski would be sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with facial fractures.

Immediately, Werenski was lauded by fans for the strength he showed by coming back into the game injured, but he never should have returned to the game. Medical professionals in NHL locker rooms should know better than letting an injured or ill player on the ice. This should always be the case, but especially when the injury or illness has the potential to be fatal if the player is hit the right way.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner played through the end of the regular season with mononucleosis. One symptom of mono, among many, is an enlarged spleen. Patients are advised not to take part in contact sports, at the risk of rupturing the spleen. Coach Mike Babcock accidently let that slip on a radio show following locker clear out.

Marner hadn’t been playing his best hockey around that time, but at the time, no explanation was given. He is a smaller player, at 6’0” and 165 lbs. His size makes him more susceptible to big hits. A hit at the wrong angle could have killed him, yet he was still allowed to play. Injury and illness has become so normalized that no one questioned it when Marner suddenly wasn’t playing at top form, had lost some weight and was clearly sluggish in his skating, which is usually extremely fast.

Hockey players glorifying playing through injuries is a major problem in the league. Playing through a torn ACL or mono is not something to be worn as a badge of honor or a way to gauge manliness. It’s not “hockey tough,” or even regular tough.

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