For Blackhawks’ defensemen, pain goes with the territory — obviously
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org February 11, 2013 8:10PM
Chicago Blackhawks' Niklas Hjalmarsson, left, of Sweden, and Vancouver Canucks' Mason Raymond battle to get to the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darryl Dyck)
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Updated: February 11, 2013 8:31PM
Obviously, Niklas Hjalmarsson said. Obviously, as if it were a mundane experience, a routine activity, a normal everyday part of any 9-to-5 job.
“I’ve broken bones, obviously,” the Blackhawks defenseman said with a shrug.
Of course, he’s broken bones. Of course, he’s taken a 90-mph slapshot or two off his hands, shattering his fingers against the shaft of his stick. Of course, he’s had his feet cracked by a frozen slab of rubber smashing into the thin layer of plastic protecting them. And of course, he’s kept on playing despite those injuries.
He’s an NHL defenseman. It’s just what they do. They see a player rearing back, ready to blast away, and they run into the fire — crouching, kneeling, sliding, whatever it takes to keep that puck from finding its way to the net. “It’s not fun,” Hjalmarsson admits, but it’s part of the job description — an important, and appreciated one, at that.
“It means a lot when a guy steps in front of a slapshot,” Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford said after watching his teammates block 14 of them in Sunday’s 3-0 victory in Nashville. “It definitely helps. Me and [Ray Emery] appreciate that. It’s one of those things you’ve got to do if you want to win hockey [games].”
It’s something the Hawks have been doing plenty of during their 10-0-2 start. Brent Seabrook (35), Hjalmarsson (29) and Johnny Oduya (25) are each among the 20 most prolific shot-blockers in the league this season. And they have the black-and-blues to prove it. The normal human instinct would be to leap out of the way of a shot like that, to avoid personal injury at all costs. But hockey players — defensemen, in particular — have conditioned themselves to think differently, to embrace the puck, not fear it.
In fact, neither of the Hawks’ three top shot-blockers could remember a time when they were afraid of stepping into the line of fire. Frankly, there’s no time to be. See puck, stop puck.
“I don’t think anybody has that in their head, that they’re going to get hurt,” Oduya said. “It’s like getting in your car. It’s probably one of the most dangerous things to do, but you don’t think you’re going to have an accident. It’s kind of the same thing.”
And defensive driving on the ice is key. Oduya said it’s like playing goalie — you don’t want to open yourself up to the shot. When he’s in the right position, he gets down on one knee, closes his body tight — the insides of your legs and arms are the least protected by padding, and it’s better for your goalie’s vision to have a shot go around you than through you — tucks his chin down and to the side to get as much protection from his visor as possible, and hopes for the best. He also likes to get as close as possible to the shooter, so he gets hit before the puck has time to elevate to face-level.
And yes, he keeps his eyes open.
“You’re still going to get hit either way,” Oduya said.
Getting hit on the shins is best. On the shorts is good, too. But sometimes — particularly on desperation blocks, when a player slides across the ice to get in the way — bad things happen. A couple of years ago, Oduya broke the bone on the outside of his foot, and kept playing nearly two full months while it healed. Painkillers and a protective skate shield allowed him to muddle through.
Even if nothing’s broken, a shot to the skate is almost always going to leave a mark. Normally, players take off their skates between periods to relax. But not when they’ve made a kick save or two with those skates — now thinner and lighter than ever, as players choose speed over safety.
“If I get hit, I’ll keep it on so the blood doesn’t go down there and swell up,” Oduya said. “Because you won’t be able to tie them up again for at least a day.”
The consequences of a blocked shot can be severe, but the fear of letting in a goal far outweighs the fear of getting hit. Take Nick Leddy, for example. The Hawks defenseman took a puck in the face near the end of Thursday’s game in Phoenix. He immediately had some work done inside his mouth, and three days later he was back on the ice at Nashville — without a protective cage on his helmet. In the second period, he once again ran into the line of fire, getting in the way of a Mike Fisher shot and deflected the golden opportunity into the seats.
Obviously. He’s a hockey player, after all. This is what they do.
“You can’t be afraid of the puck,” Hjalmarsson said. “You can’t think about it. It just kind of happens. And if it gets you in a bad spot, it gets you in a bad spot. You just take it and keep playing.”