No Pain = No Gain?

When I watched the video of Gregory Campbell writhing skating on a broken leg for over a minute, I didn’t feel inspired. I felt nauseous.

Chalk it up to an empathetic projection of my vasovagal reaction to pain—a relatively normal physiological reaction, all things considered. Luckily, I haven’t personally experienced much physical trauma in my life, so I’m happy to say I can’t describe this phenomenon in more detail. But from my understanding, this is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and you should probably go about acquiring medical attention for that broken fibula instead of “valiantly” wriggling around the ice during that penalty kill, Greg.

We all know that pain is a part of life. But should it be idealized—both in the realm of athletics, and beyond? Should we be teaching young hockey players to swallow the hurt and chug away, because tears are for the weak, and hockey (which is a metaphor for life, dontcha know?) is for the tough?

Some very brilliant hockey writers have expressed their sentiments on this subject better than I could ever hope to, so you should start by checking out Ryan Lambert’s take (“Hockey’s attitude towards injuries remains as dumb as ever”)  and then Joe Proulx’s response (“You’re not always gonna feel great, but the job comes first”)  Oh, and for a refresher on some of the spilled blood and broken bones that saturate the history of the NHL, Stu Hackel at Sports Illustrated launches into the grisly details. You know what they say—no guts, no glory.

Old-time hockey is filled with guts-and-glory stories, many of which involved the indomitable Eddie Shore (those crazy Bruins, eh?), who accumulated an estimated 800 stiches over the course of his 15-year NHL career. In a single game against the Montreal Maroons, Shore suffered a lacerated cheekbone, a two-inch cut above his eye (both of which were blackened), a broken nose, three broken teeth, and was knocked out cold for 14 minutes. But hey, no biggie—he played in the next game. And that, depending on your point of view, makes him either a hero or an idiot.

I can still admire—from the safety of my couch—the unbelievable motivation that many of these hockey players demonstrate. Theirs is the kind of motivation that drives a person to give something their absolute all, the kind that pushes Gregory Campbell to dive in front of that slapshot in the first place. (I admire this because, after all, I am a Rangers fan.) Plus, I embrace the idea of wholly committing oneself to something, if only as a Didion-esque means of attempting to triumph over nothingness.  And even as I recognize that I’m writing about a sports game, I do accept that there are lessons to be learned, and that disregarding one’s own safety for something Greater—be it the morale of the team, the Stanley Cup, or what have you—is commendable.

But in my mind, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere between Bravery and Absurdity, and Gregory Campbell’s actions hurtle past the former and into the realm of the latter. Maybe this mindset is a function of the fact that I am not, contrary to popular belief, a professional hockey player. I have not struggled through innumerable obstacles—both physical and emotional—in order to get to this point in my career; I am not holding the precious hopes and dreams of my teammates (and countless others) on my shoulders alongside my own. Put in more mundane terms: It’s not my job to do whatever it takes to win.

Even so, I am a hockey player, and a hockey fan, and I, too, have lovingly memorized the closing monologue of last year’s 24/7, which includes this gem: “Never get caught telling a hockey player, ‘It’s just a game.’” While I do believe that hockey is more than “just a game,” I also believe—contrary to what the unbreakable Brandon Prust says—that pain is more than “just pain.”

The idea of glorifying pain is hopelessly antiquated, insofar as it is intricately connected to the idealization of tough-guy, hyper-masculine sports personas. If ignoring your body’s desperate need for medical attention is considered “toughening up,” then the alternative—that is, succumbing to pain—makes you a sissy (short for “sister”; a pejorative, sexist term that implies that women are weaker and therefore inferior; see “Crosby, Cindy”). Yes, toughness as a manifestation of determination is a part of the game of hockey, and determination is a wonderful quality to possess in life. But the endurance of pain should be separated from that abstract notion. (Especially since it is, in large part, a farce, considering the heaps of medication a player probably ingests in order to “play through the pain” of a torn labrum or a PCL, a broken wrist or cracked ankle. This Pain-fighting Hero, then, is not even him. Or her. But I digress.) I happen to like the “Hockey is for everyone” slogan over the “Hockey is for only really tough manly-men who happen to have been born with a high pain-tolerance threshold and a blatant disregard for personal well-being.”

Though it may seem impossible to establish a dividing line between Bravery and Absurdity, perhaps we can adopt one from everybody’s favorite movie, Miracle. (Of course.) After confirming with the team doctor that Rob McClanahan wouldn’t further injure his bruised leg by playing on it, coach Herb Brooks tells McClanahan to suit up for the game—implying that if his player was at risk for further injury, Brooks wouldn’t have sent him out on the ice.

Now, we’re left with these categories: Playing through temporary pain is laudable, but playing through temporary pain with potentially long-term consequences is just plain stupid. When we say that the NHL is “cracking down on concussions,” we’re essentially placing concussions in the second category and agreeing that under no circumstances should a player attempt to “play through” a concussion. But when a player is pulling on his jersey for the fifth overtime period and at that point is really just dreaming about his bed, not the Stanley Cup, we’d all agree that he should push himself past this exhaustion the moment he steps out onto the ice. Easy enough distinction, right?

As I’m sure you’ve already realized, it may not be that simple. McClanahan, who, it must be noted, did not know what the doctor had revealed to the coach, responded to Brooks’ goading with one of the (zillions upon gazillions of) greatest lines in the movie: “I AM A HOCKEY PLAYER! YOU WANT ME TO PLAY ON ONE LEG? I’LL PLAY ON ONE LEG!”

Cue Gregory Campbell.

And really, who doesn’t get goosebumps from an impassioned pronouncement like that? He’ll play on one leg—he’s a hockey player! He’ll dislocate his shoulder, pop it back in, and come out for overtime—he’s a hockey player! He’ll “get his bell rung” in a fight and drop the gloves again four minutes later—he’s a hockey player!

But maybe, just maybe, there’s a fatal flaw in this so-called ideal. Decades ago, wearing helmets was a radical concept. Months ago, visors were optional. Mandating the use of Kevlar socks is still a while away, but it’s not as inconceivable as it once was. Like anything, the game of hockey needs to evolve to survive. These changes are strengthening the game, not weakening it. In addition to the aforementioned rule changes, we’re beginning to see a slight culture change as well—The NHL’s recent partnership with You Can Play represents an important step in the right direction, towards a more inclusive, and less impulsively reckless, NHL.

Change can be painful. But it is precisely the kind of pain that we should endure.

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