TORONTO – Ken Hitchcock was tired of the dance. In his 22nd year behind an NHL bench, the Dallas Stars head coach decided he would break from the prevalent, league-wide trend of referring publicly to player injuries only as “upper body” or “lower body” ailments.
“It’s an injury and within two hours after we tell you (the media) it’s upper body, you know exactly what it is, so why not just tell you?” Hitchcock said earlier this season.
The practice of vague, binary injury designations was adopted decades earlier by coaches who believed they were protecting their players by being vague. They theorized that opponents aware of injury specifics would target the ailing body parts or otherwise exploit the injured players. But Hitchcock does not buy that logic.
“The players don’t go out and say, ‘He has a broken left pinkie, and we’re going to go after that pinkie,’” Hitchcock says. “Nobody thinks like that.”
The “upper body”/”lower body” convention has been allowed to persist because, unlike the NFL, the NHL does not have a policy requiring teams to release injury information publicly. But the practice is under increased scrutiny in an age of distrust for corporate communication and of increased concern around the treatment of concussions – an injury commonly lumped into the “upper body” category.
“By hiding the final diagnosis, they avoid public scrutiny on their decisions to allow players to continue playing despite showing concussion signs on the ice,” said Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation. “Hiding the injury is also confusing to their audience, which includes youth hockey players and parents. Every properly managed concussion in a professional game is an educational opportunity, and by hiding the diagnosis, the NHL is promoting confusion around concussion signs in NHL players.”
Anton Thun, an NHL agent for almost 35 years, feels so strongly about this campaign of secrecy that he calls it “a travesty” and said there’s no reason why teams can’t be honest with the public.
“It’s an attempt to confuse,” Thun said. “It creates a veil around what the injuries truly are. And it encourages players to hide the injury.”
The hockey culture is steeped in the tradition of hiding injuries. Mostly, it’s a protective measure against targeting, real or imagined.
Going back to March 1905, Frank McGee of the Ottawa Silver Seven is said to have worn a light bandage over his broken wrist against the Rat Portage Thistles in a Stanley Cup challenge while his good forearm was wrapped in a full cast as a decoy, according to hockey historian Eric Zweig.
By the 1990s, former NHL coach Pat Quinn, a lawyer in training, popularized the inscrutable “upper-” and “lower-body” injury terms as a way to shade the truth and throw media off the scent.
Quinn, who viewed hockey as war and reporters as spies, sought a way to protect wounded players from being targeted. Tired of being hounded by the media, Quinn came up with the “upper body” and “lower body” labels, which over time became part of the NHL coaching lexicon.
But players dispute how much difference it makes.
“Do players target? Not really,” Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick said. “You have a good player on their team and he’s struggling (physically), and you want to make it harder on him. That’s just the competitive nature of the game.”
Colin Campbell, a former coach and the currently league’s senior vice-president of hockey operations, doesn’t believe teams target wounded players and said that if he were a coach today, he would come clean, at least during the regular season.
“I would tell them (media) as long my general manager agreed,” Campbell said. “I would just say the guy’s got a sprained knee and he’s out. End of story. And I’ll tell you when he’s coming back; don’t ask me the next day or the next day.”
The league policy on disclosing injuries warns against giving false or misleading information to the media, but it’s hard to tell if any coach is lying because the league does not reveal violators.
Bill Daly, deputy commissioner of the NHL, said in an email that the league has the ability to fine clubs, “and (does) in fact assess club fines” for this matter. But he would not give examples or disclose specifics.
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock prefers to stay the course by masking all ailments, even head injuries.
“I don’t like talking about head injuries because as soon as you say there is a head injury then there are all these things about concussions and half the time it’s the neck or something,” Babcock said. “I want the player and the right people to work that out.”
Earlier this season, Toronto’s standout center Auston Matthews missed six games because of what Babcock called an upper body injury. It was later revealed by Matthews to be a concussion.
Babcock said the Leafs would continue to stick with “upper body” and “lower body” descriptors. “The great thing about the league is every coach can do what he wants,” he said.
Others aren’t so sure the practice is beneficial.
“I have heard the argument that by not putting ‘concussion’ on the report, they are protecting players from being targeted by the other team,” Nowinski said. “I see it the other way: If there is transparency that a player has just returned from a concussion, the referees can better recognize and penalize targeting a susceptible player’s head, and the league can more severely punish and suspend a player who targets the head of a player returning from concussion in an attempt to injure them.”
Ken Holland, the Red Wings’ general manager, is among the minority who falls on the side of injury disclosure, whenever he can. Secrecy can be a curse, he said, leading to unsubstantiated rumors on social media.
“There are stories out there that are not true, so I disclose it during the regular season to put the rumors to bed,” Holland said.
The issue is not on the NHL’s front-burner, according to Campbell, who suggested the topic might be addressed at the general manager’s meetings in March.
“It’d be nice if the NHL just said, hey, make it full disclosure,” Carolina Hurricanes Coach Bill Peters said. “I’d have no problem with that – as long as it’s consistent across the board.”
Some players, including the Washington Capitals’ T.J. Oshie, still prefer the protection.
“There’s still a bunch of idiots in the league who don’t care if they take a penalty, and if they know someone’s got a bad wrist, they’re going to slash it,” Oshie said.
According to the current collective bargaining agreement, “for public relations purposes” the league, teams and/or the NHL Players’ Association have the discretion to disclose the nature of a player’s injury as well as treatment and recovery timeline around injuries sustained in service to the team. So while some players may want the protection of secrecy, the league could institute a policy of transparency without needing them to sign off, though the players’ association could file a grievance.
Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik questions whether disclosing a player’s injuries is a violation of privacy.
“If I go to the doctor’s office, do I have to tell everybody? It’s HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, you know?” Orpik said. “So why should my personal health be relayed to everybody? It’s kind of weird.”
After Washington’s Oshie missed six games earlier this season, he didn’t hesitate in revealing he had suffered the fourth documented concussion of his career. He said he’s happy to disclose whatever was ailing him ... as long as he’s fully recovered.
“Usually it seems like you guys know anyways,” Oshie said.
Khurshudyan reported from Washington.