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March 15, 2013
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Schedule Contributes to NHL Injuries

Scott Taylor
Senior Writer, Fantrax

WINNIPEG

Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier was placed on injured reserve yesterday and will be out indefinitely with the dreaded “lower-body injury.” He’ll join teammates Matthias Ohlund, Matt Taormina, Benoit Pouliot, Tom Pyatt and Mathieu Garon on the NHL’s injured list. 

Lecavalier will also join the likes of Boston’s Chris Kelly; Buffalo’s Ville Leino and Alexander Sulzer; Calgary’s young star Sven Baertschi; Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu and Cam Ward; Chicago’s Patrick Sharp; Columbus’s James Wisniewski and Artem Anisimov; Dallas’s Jamie Benn and Brenden Morrow; Detroit’s Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson; Florida’s Ed Jovanovski, Kris Versteeg, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Dmitry Kulikov and Stephen Weiss; L.A.’s Willie Mitchell; Minnesota’s Josh Harding; Montreal’s Rene Bourque, Raphael Diaz and Brandon Prust; Nashville’s Hal Gill, Patric Hornqvist, Colin Wilson and Paul Gaustad; New Jersey’s Dainius Zubrus, Martin Brodeur and Henrik Tallinder; the Islanders’ Michael Grabner; the Rangers Arron Asham and Marc Staal; half of Ottawa’s team; Philly’s Luke Schenn; Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata and Matthew Lombardi; Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin; St. Louis’s T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen and Andy McDonald; Toronto’s Joffrey Lupul; Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra, Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa; Washington’s Brooks Laich, Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov; and Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom, Zach Redmond, Anthony Peluso and Jim Slater.

That’s a list full of good hockey players, but that’s just a part of the NHL’s ugly injury epidemic. Right now, there are more than 120 players on the NHL’s injury list. That’s four from every team, although Chicago has one and Ottawa and Florida have nine each.

Granted, some of the players – eg. Marc Savard, Eddie Jovanovski, Andy McDonald and Ryan Murray – were all there before the season began, but the vast majority of the players, plus the players who have been on the list for stints at other times during the regular season, were all injured between the middle of January and yesterday.

That’s not good.

During our canvassing of the scouts a week ago, we asked them what they believed to be the most distressing development of this 2013 season. Almost all of them said, “injuries.”

“The thing I’ve noticed is how taxing this schedule has been on the players,” offered our Winnipeg Jets scout. “The short schedule and the number of games – without any kind of training camp – has resulted in a far too many injuries. Right now, the teams that haven’t been affected by injuries and have the most depth are the teams that have been successful. You look at Florida and Ottawa and you have to wonder how they compete every night.”

Everyone knew this would be a difficult season. The lockout shortened the schedule to 48 games in a period of 13 ½ weeks (95 days), or barely three months. That’s a game every two days. And while hockey players who love to compete would rather play games than practice, the lack of a training camp and meaningful practice has helped make the games chippy, intense, often out of control and downright dangerous. 

After scoring the winning goal in Winnipeg’s recent 2-1 win over Tampa, Jets centre Brian Little was asked about the intensity of this 48-game schedule: “I love the intensity. As a player you have to want to play hard every night and I’m sure it’s been entertaining for the fans.”

He was then asked, if he’d prefer a short 48-game season to the regular 82 game season. He just laughed: “No, I’m not crazy. This is fun, but I wouldn’t want to do it every year.”

While it’s great that every game is important and every game will have a higher level of intensity, there are a couple of problems with playing too many games (48) in too few days (95).

There is no time to rest and recover, too many players are getting hurt and NHL fans are being asked to pay NHL ticket prices to watch American Hockey League players.

NHL fans have seen some great hockey this year, some exciting hockey as well. But they are also watching a league in which 20 per cent of the regulars are injured. Thursday night, here in Winnipeg, it was the sort-of Winnipeg Jets (four injured regulars) against the sort-of New York Rangers (four injured starters), in a battle for the final playoff spot in the East.

There are no athletes on the planet in better shape overall than NHL hockey players. I’ve seen their workouts at Winnipeg’s Elite Performance and at McDole's Gym and I know how hard they work every day in the off-season to get ready for training camp and the regular season.

But this season has been different. Some players lost some on-ice conditioning during the lockout. Others, newly acquired free agents for instance, needed a longer training camp to get accustomed to (a) their teammates and (b) their new environment.

But while all that is certainly a problem, the most troubling reality is that players are being asked to play too many high-stakes hockey games in too short a time. There is no chance to rest and recover. The Jets, as a for instance, play seven games in the next 11 days. That’s nuts. Peewee-aged tournaments don’t force kids to play that many games in that short a period of time.

Big, fast, fearless, well-conditioned athletes are being asked to play one of the world’s toughest collision sports at the highest possible level every other night for three months. No wonder a fifth of the league is in the hospital. 

Scott is an author, broadcaster and journalist who travels extensively for Fantrax.

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