Hockey hurts. That’s always been true, and the pain has always tempered the joy of what happens when you mix ice and skates and sticks and pucks. Whether you play in the NWHL or NHL, as a peewee or midget or beer-league veteran, or out on pond, you know this because you’ve felt it. Play the game and you soon learn that hockey bangs and bruises us, bends and stretches, cuts and contuses and concusses us, strains and spasms and day-to-days us, charley-horses, breaks and IRs us.
Did it used to hurt more, in the olden days? That’s debatable. What it true is that if you browse a lot of hockey books, study the photographs, the archival record can make for some grim reading. Take the voluminous literature of hockey stitching for an example. As a player, you don’t go looking for stitches, of course, no-one does, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid them. A long-ago goaltender, Lorne Chabot, played long enough wearing no mask to know that getting cuts to the face were as inevitable a part of the game as pucks coming a him, which is why he used to make sure to shave before each game. “I stitch better,” he felt, “when my skin is smooth.”
There are several levels of meaning to sutures in hockey, starting with the useful medical purpose of closing a deep cut. Beyond that they serve as a gauge of many hockey different attributes, including durability, tenacity, pain, willingness to suffer, poor timing, and bad luck of a kind measured out in monofilament.
It may take a period of adjustment for newcomers to the game to figure out how to read their hieroglyphics. Stitches aren’t like a thread-count in bedsheets, the numbers don’t automatically indicate quality. Theyre are one of the costs of doing business for hockey players. Worry? Who, me? As a winger for Anaheim’s Ducks, Dan Bylsma said he gave up counting at 550. “Stitches are a routine thing,” the biographers of Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Goldsworthy’s shrug. “Once he had his tongue split open. This required ten stitches to close.”
Former Boston Bruin centreman Derek Sanderson was eight years old when a puck hit him in the face at practice one day. Blood everywhere, Sanderson remembers. His dad, Harold, told him to keep going. “So I bled for the entire practice, and when it was over he took me to the hospital where I had three stitches.” They started a little ritual after that: when the stitches were plucked, they went into a little plastic box. “Harold saved every one of my first 100 stitches,” Sanderson recalls, “and, pretty soon, I started to become proud of them.”
Hockey’s books are filled with stitch-counts, if you pay attention. Jacques Plante writes he’d taken on 200 by the time he started wearing his mask in 1959. Another Hall-of-Fame netminder, Gump Worsley, tallied 250, while Johnny Bower claimed 280. Chicago’s Glenn Hall estimated he had 300 in his career, mostly around the mouth.
Theo Fleury settled on 500 for his career. “Most people who don’t know I play hockey,” he once said, “think I was thrown through a plate-glass window or something.” The great Gordie Howe is on the record as having counted that many in his face alone. The skin over the bridge of Howe’s nose was so often sewn that it took a firm hand, after a while, to get a needle through it. Howe, incidentally, blamed himself for many of them. “I was taught to put a lot of weight on my stick,” he once said, “so I’d lean on it. In order for a player to hook my stick off the puck, they would use a lot of strength. When they’d get ready to pull up my stick, I’d pull it out of the way, and their blade would hit me in the face. It would’ve been prevented if I left my stick where it was. About 300 of my stitches were mistakes.”
“The reason I know how many stitches I had,” wrote a longtime Detroit teammate of Howe’s, defenceman Bill Gadsby, “is that my dear wife, Edna kept a log of how many times I was hurt, just like some spouses keep a list of birthdays and anniversary dates.” And it was worthwhile: in the 1950s, Gadsby was one of the NHLers who bought stitch insurance, a $100 annual policy that would pay him $5 for each one it took to close a hockey cut. Sounds like a story, but no. One year Gadsby bled so much he ended up making a $50 profit.
Adapted from Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession (Greystone) by Stephen Smith. For more on hockey pain and history, visit puckstruck.com
Main image courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.