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Wednesday, April 26, 2006
This story might give you an upper-body injury

By Damien Cox
Special to

It was, among many things, a fascinating illustration of the often incestuous relationship between the media and professional sports.

Last Friday, on Hockey Night in Canada, there was Ron MacLean interviewing Anaheim Mighty Ducks general manager Brian Burke.

Burke, during the lockout, was among the NHL unemployed, so he spent time during the labor wrangling working as an "insider" for Canada's all-sports network, TSN, dispensing all kinds of intriguing tidbits garnered from conversations with his various sources in the industry.

So when MacLean was interviewing Burke, one might have thought it was a meeting of two colleagues, a chance to share information that might be of value to the public interested in the Anaheim-Calgary first round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The interview came after the first period of Game 1, a period that had included the surprise decision by the Ducks to start Ilya Bryzgalov in net rather than the club's No. 1 goaler, Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Giguere, being the 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner for his role in powering the Ducks to the Stanley Cup final, was a major roster deletion, but neither the team nor the league had supplied any information as to why he wasn't playing or even sitting on the Ducks bench.

Instead, there was Nathan Marsters serving as Bryzgalov's backup and supplying the playoffs with its first super-tough trivia question.

When asked about the absence of his star goalie, Burke grudgingly revealed Giguere was suffering from an injury that wasn't expected to be long-term.

"What's the injury?" asked MacLean.

"None of your business," Burke curtly told the representative of Canada's national broadcaster.

Thus admonished, MacLean went on to other topics. Giguere started the next game, the Ducks were never forthcoming about the injury other than to say it was a "lower-body" problem, and business, at least for the NHL, went on as usual.

Saku Koivu
The tendency to call injuries such as Saku Koivu's by vague terms -- upper body, in this case -- is common in the playoffs.

This silliness, of course, has been going on for years. While other sports feel it's important for a variety of reasons to push their teams to be as forthcoming as possible about injuries and player availability, the NHL continues to operate under a policy that actively encourages its teams and players to not only hide injuries, but to actively lie about them.

At a time when the league is getting lots of positive ink and media coverage over the quality of fast-paced action that is being produced as part of the playoffs, it is to marvel at the utter stupidity of the Bettman administration to allow its fans to be misled and manipulated in this way.

Remember those "Thank You Fans!" painted signs on the ice in the wake of the lockout?

Well, perhaps they should be changed to "None of Your Bloody Business!" for the postseason.

Burke might even supply the bluster.

The upper body/lower body silliness was dreamed up a few years ago and has now infected the regular season as well. Just as "it is what it is" has become part of everyday chatter in the way "yada yada" once did, so too do hockey fans jokingly describe various aches and pains as upper body and lower body in mocking salute to the NHL.

Only in real life, you see, is the hip bone connected to the leg bone, and so on.

In the NHL, the upper body is connected to, um, the upper body.

The lower body exists in a totally separate universe, although it does make you wonder if a hand injury is an upper body part when celebrating a goal but a lower-body attachment when used to tie skates or take a wrist shot.

Or, if I'm lying down, do I have any upper or lower body at all?

All this does, naturally, is force media and fans to guess at the injuries suffered by players, to which NHL managers and coaches then have the utter gall to take issue with when rumors get out of hand.

When Jaromir Jagr tried to, well, paw at Scott Gomez of the Devils in the third period of Game 1 competition between the two clubs last Saturday, the Czech star left with what appeared to be a left shoulder injury.

Or was it a wrist? My guess was a rib problem, but who really knows?

It was dutifully described as an upper-body injury, and that was that.

Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, meanwhile, departed after two shifts in the first overtime period of the Red Wings 4-3 double OT loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night. The Oilers wondered aloud if it was a back problem. The Wings said it was an "upper-body" injury, which might be true or might not be, depending on which vertebrae we're discussing here.

Now, there's not a great deal of gambling on the NHL that goes on in North America, but there's some. You'd think, given the fact that an NHL assistant coach was among the accused when New Jersey police revealed their "Operation Slap Shot" investigation in January, that the league might want to make sure it's absolutely squeaky clean on stuff like this.

If I knew Giguere or Jagr or Yzerman wasn't playing for their respective teams, or if I knew their injuries would severely compromise their ability to perform, I'd certainly be inclined to lay dough down on the other squad.

The NHL, sadly, blissfully strolls along, apparently uncaring about this potential issue, or not smart enough to head it off before it becomes a problem.

The argument in NHL circles, of course, has always been that in divulging injuries a player might be exposed to undue violence from the opponent on the injured area.

This is absurd on several fronts, but let's stick to two.

First, why isn't it dangerous for an NFL player's injury to be made public, but for an NHL player it is akin to sending him into a beehive covered in honey?

Second, if a player is so badly wounded that all the equipment worn by hockey players can't protect him from a bodycheck, chop or punch, then he's probably too injured to play.

In recent years, the "protection" argument has been augmented by the "right to privacy" argument, as if knowing Scott Niedermayer has a knee problem -- hey, everybody knows that -- might cause his children shame at school.

Let's be honest here. The failure to advise the public of injuries is simply a function of controlling GMs and coaches who believe revealing the type of tape used by their team is as treasonous as giving military secrets to the enemy.

Hockey players, as the lockout proved, will go along with just about anything. One of the funniest parts of the 2004 playoffs was watching the Tampa Bay Lightning cordon off the part of their dressing room floor that contained the team's logo.

When it was felt those precautions would not properly restrain interlopers, the Bolts had security personnel surround the logo when the media entered as if they were protecting one of the most treasured icons in all of North American sport.

When it comes to injuries, players don't reveal their wounds anymore because management has told them not to, not because they're worried about their health.

After all, they're smart enough to know they're endangering their health every time they skate out onto the ice, and that when the playoffs roll around, basically everyone out there is injured to some degree.

Perhaps we should all be thankful teams are at least willing to describe injuries as "upper-body" and "lower-body" problems, for it could get worse.

In the future, they might devise a system under which a player could either be described as injured worse than Clint Malarchuk was when a skate sliced his throat open while he was playing goal, or not as badly.

"Worse than a Malarchuk?" would be the question.

"Naw, this is a sub-Malarchuk," would be the response.

Or perhaps a game could be invented in which a player would be imagined in a different job, and the injury could then be described as one that would or would not affect that job.

"So, if Georges Laraque was a runway model, would he be able to wear Gucci?"

"Yeah, he'd be good to go."

The more farcical, the better. Farce, after all, is the only way to describe the way the NHL allows its fans to be abused by injury disinformation at a time when the league should be doing all it can to lure customers back to the rink.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to