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Playing Through The Pain: When Is It Time To Sit?

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Things are not always what they seem to be when looking at a hockey team.  Even though a club has not lost many "man games" due to injuries, it does not necessarily mean that the team is injury free. 

Case in point, the Carolina Hurricanes.  They have lost a minimal number of games due to injuries so far this season, (4), but the majority of the team did not take the ice for practice on Monday.   Obviously, the Canes have several banged up athletes who are playing through some pain.  But when is enough, enough?  And if a player is battling an injury, who makes the decision whether a player can dress for a game?

Hurricanes head trainer, Pete Friesen, indicated that there is no hard set rule regarding that decision.

"It really depends upon the age of the player," Friesen told me.  "We give a little more latitude to the older players to decide if they will be in or out, sort of thing.  When it's a younger player and he doesn't understand or know his limitations, then we make the call. "

But sometimes players can make the wrong decision.

During the 2007-08 season, the Canes were nearing the end of a hotly contested playoff race.  Ray Whitney and Justin Williams had missed a large stretch of games, but both were cleared to play in the most crucial final games of the season. Williams re-injured himself in his first game back and Whitney was a non-factor as it appeared obvious that neither player was 100% ready for action.

The Canes ended up losing three of their last four games, including a home loss to Florida the final game of the season, which could have clinched a postseason spot.

Aaron Ward admitted that he made a mistake last season.   Often times fans wondered, what happened to the Aaron Ward who was such a steady performer for the team in recent years?  While the defenseman skated his 15 to 18 minutes of ice time every night and never complained, after some games it appeared like he could barely walk as he limped around the dressing room.

When Ward retired during this offseason, he was quoted as saying that he should have had knee surgery, instead of trying to play through his problem.  That decision might have cost him another year of his playing career.

So how does a player make that decision?  In a sport where a player will take a puck to the face, get helped to the dressing room, get stitched up, then return to the ice to finish the game, when will a player finally tell himself, it's time to sit this one out?

Tuomo Ruutu said that it is not easy sometimes for him to make that call.

"That's very tough.  There is a fine line sometimes," Ruutu said.  "As long as you are able to protect yourself.  You know, if you hurt your ankle or your knee, or hurt your head sometimes and you can't help your team, that's the line.  But it's tough because if you can possibly play and contribute, then you want to be out there."

No stranger to injuries, I also asked Erik Cole for his take.

"I know nothing about it," he joked at first. 

"I think if it affects your mobility or how you move around out there, then that's the primary consideration."  The winger went on.  "As far as pain tolerance, I don't think you ever get to the point where something hurts too much.  If it's something that physically doesn't allow you to play to your capabilities, or very near your capabilities, then that's the defining reason." 

Pete Friesen also emphasized that players need to be able to protect themselves.

"The biggest thing from an injury perspective is that players need to be able to protect themselves.  For instance if they have like a damaged knee or shoulder and they can't go into the boards and protect themselves, then they could further hurt themselves and obviously hurt the team's chances of winning too.  That's also a factor."

The National Hockey League is often criticized for their lack of valid reporting when it comes to a player's injury status.   One player might have a "lower body injury" while another has an "upper body concern."  But players hate to discuss injuries and rarely will they go in detail about anything injury related, until the season is over. 

So while the Carolina Hurricanes have only lost four man games due to injuries so far this season, don't be thinking that they are totally injury free.  Hopefully they make the decision, whether to keep playing or not, which is right for them and right for the team.