Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) grimaces as he falls to the ice after colliding with Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Matt Cooke, left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013.
Photograph by: Gene J. Puskar, AP
VANCOUVER — Now that it has tackled softer caps on shoulder and elbow pads and rounded the glass near the benches to eliminate the “turnbuckle” effect, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety needs to look into this whole business of skate sharpening.
Like, limiting it to once a month, with the Dave Keon skate sharpener.
For those of you under the age of 50, that’s the little whetstone-imbedded gizmo, maybe three inches long, that kids used to send away for, with $1.25 and a label from Bee Hive Corn Syrup, to put something resembling an edge on their blades after accidentally stepping on concrete on the way from the dressing room to the ice surface.
No one ever got cut by a skate sharpened with a Dave Keon.
Alas, technology arrived, and with it came the NHL player’s penchant for having his skates done every few days on a machine that puts an edge like the amazing Ginsu knife on them, and suddenly the skate cut — like Matt Cooke — is an ongoing menace in the game of hockey.
Not to make light of Cooke’s harmless-looking hit on Ottawa’s Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson on Wednesday night, when the Pittsburgh winger’s left skate neatly sliced 70 per cent of the way through Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon, but really, what are we talking about here?
Intent to cripple? Hard to make that case, even taking into consideration the perpetrator’s list of priors.
The result of the hit was undeniably a gut-shot to the Senators — costing them the most exciting (arguably the best) young player in the game for the rest of the season, having already lost their top forward, Jason Spezza, to back surgery — and almost certainly puts their entire season in the dumper.
It’s bad for hockey and bad for the NHL, but it’s really bad for Sens coach Paul MacLean, who will surely get a mulligan on this season, and general manager Bryan Murray, whose plans for 2013 have gone up in smoke.
No doubt that explains the bitterness in Murray’s comments both post-game Wednesday (“It’s Matt Cooke. What else should I say?”) and again Thursday afternoon in Ottawa, where he came to the rink to announce that Karlsson, 22, had undergone early-morning surgery and would be lost for the season.
There was no joy to be had from NHL Player Safety chief Brendan Shanahan, either.
“They suggested it was a hockey play gone bad,” Murray said. “I suggested Cooke has somewhat of a history.” And he certainly does.
Boston forward Marc Savard’s career is over, courtesy of an unpunished Cooke hit, and his March 2001 head shot on Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh netted the Penguins forward a 17-game suspension encompassing the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
But if you recall, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero made no defence of Cooke’s actions at the time, saying there was no place in the game for the crimes Cooke was in the habit of committing. So we should probably give Shero the benefit of the doubt now, when he says: “I would not be defending Matt Cooke if I thought it was a dirty hockey play or anything with intent."
And Cooke has truly cleaned up his act in the past 18 months.
"I feel horrible for Erik Karlsson, I feel bad for Ottawa," Shero told ESPN.com. "Our fan base knows how it feels to lose a star player. It's emotional. It's just very unfortunate.”
"I'm disappointed that Erik got hurt, I'm disappointed for him and our team,” Murray said. “It's dreadful. It's one of the best players in the league getting hurt. But I can't do anybody's else job but my own. And it's of no value one way or another to the Ottawa Senators if Matt Cooke is suspended or not. We don't get our player back."
If you slow the play down and go stop-action on it, you might think you can see a thought forming in Cooke’s head, even a deliberate movement of the skate, drawing it across the Achilles. But the play didn’t take place in slow motion. It happened in an instant.
And yes, you can wonder why Cooke’s left leg was raised at all, what the point of that was, but we’ll take TSN analyst Aaron Ward’s word for it, as a former player, that it’s not unusual.
Besides, if you take a cross-section of skate cuts and those who inflict them, it’s not exactly a murderers’ row of criminals.
The skate that sliced into Teemu Selanne’s Achilles in January 1994 was that of Anaheim defenceman Don McSween, whose brief NHL history did not cast him as a dangerous offender.
Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa’s Achilles cut, in 2007, came on an innocent-looking tangle with Nashville’s Vern Fiddler, whose second-most notable contribution to the Bieksa narrative was when he imitated the Canuck defenceman’s “angry face” as he skated past the Vancouver bench in a game last February, causing coach Alain Vigneault a giggling fit and even eliciting a smile from his grumpy D-man. Three years later, Bieksa was the hammer, not the nail, in a hit on Phoenix’s Petr Prucha, when he was sliced on the calf.
The most famous cut of all came in 1989 when the skate of St. Louis’s Steve Tuttle sliced open the jugular vein of Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk, who nearly died — either that, or the 250-stitch gash the skate of Detroit’s Gerard Gallant accidentally carved in Borje Salming’s face in 1986.
What do all of those incidents tell us? Skates are sharp.
Full body armor is not an option, but Achilles cuts are eminently preventable by simply wearing Kevlar-fortified socks. They ought to be as basic a part of the equipment as the hockey helmet. Then again, so should visors (see Malhotra, Manny).
Bieksa has been wearing the Kevlar sock sleeves for nearly five years. He was mildly amused to see that on Thursday morning, they were all laid out in each player’s stall in the Canucks’ room.
"We have done some tests with [the socks material] and taken the X-Acto knife to it and scissors, and it doesn't go all the way through,” he said. “So I don't know why you wouldn't wear them.”
Karlsson wasn’t, and he will pay a heavy price.
“I haven't got the report on him, but it's a difficult injury to come back from,” Bieksa said. “Obviously you are going to be immobilized for quite some time in a cast. You have the difficulty of atrophy and all that stuff. Coming back you almost have to teach yourself how to walk again because you lose all the function of your foot when you slice your Achilles. I hope for the best for him. He is going to have to be patient with the process."
It’s just a thought, but if the ink isn’t quite dry on the Collective Bargaining Agreement yet, perhaps Shanahan’s Player Safety outfit and the NHL Players Association ought to consider getting Kevlar socks written into it.
Either that, or rename the department.
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