From left to right: Alex Sulitzer, Joe Hoover, Patrick Sgarlata, Cody Drees, Terran Donnelly
ix minutes and ten seconds into the first period of the Oregon Ducks' third home game of the season, junior Michael Luke entered the penalty box quieter than usual. He sat down, leaned forward and drew his arm across his chest, cradling his right side.
"Shoulder?" I asked him.
"It's really been bugging me lately," he replied through slightly gritted teeth. "No idea why."
The pain had been visible on his face and obvious in his play, but after two minutes when his penalty was served, he returned to the ice to continue the game against the Portland State Vikings.
#66 Center Alex Sulitzer
"It shows everyone else on the team that you’re willing to sacrifice your body to keep going. It shows the rest of the team that you care and that you want to be there."
-defenseman Michael Luke
The 6-foot, 215lb defenseman is no stranger to big hits or the bruises that come with them. Luke's always been a physical player. In fact, he has a reputation for it. He's the guy who will back up the smack talk on the ice, usually by flattening his victim against the boards or leveling them in open ice.
That said, Luke's physicality came at a price. His freshman year, he dislocated his right shoulder three times. The first time, Luke walked into the ER with his shirt half-off, his shoulder dangling at his side a few inches lower than normal. The second and third time, it "just rolled back in.” This was all only a year after he separated the AC joint in his left shoulder while playing for the Indianapolis Inferno, a Tier III Junior A team.
With all of the previous injuries to his shoulder, it would seem reasonable that Luke would sit out. However, doing so would go against one of the fundamental dogmas of hockey: If you’re hurt, you play – unless you’re unable to benefit your team on the ice.
His reason for staying on the ice could've come out of the mouth of any player: "I’m a hockey player and that’s what we do. We play through being hurt."
-center Dylan Dixon
To those outside of hockey culture, playing while hurt may seem foolish, but it's something that has evolved out of passion for the game and dedication to each other.
"It shows everyone else on the team that you’re willing to sacrifice your body to keep going," Luke said. "It shows the rest of the team that you care and that you want to be there."
A prime example of this mentality comes from Dylan Dixon, who played center on Colorado State’s hockey team.
"I had two concussions and a laceration to my face," said Dixon of his 2012-13 season. Despite the laceration requiring an ER visit (his eighth ER visit for a busted chin) and 48 stitches, Dixon says he didn't even notice he was bleeding until he got back to the bench. In typical hockey fashion, he still returned to the game afterward.
Playing through pain is a culture that permeates nearly all teams, regardless of level. Dixon recalls a time during his 16AAA youth ice hockey years when he took a slapshot to the foot and broke all five of his toes.
"My foot hurt, but I didn’t take off my skate to look until after the game,” Dixon said. “I knew if I checked, I couldn’t get my skate back on."
His reason for staying on the ice could've come out of the mouth of any player:
"I’m a hockey player and that’s what we do,” he said. “We play through being hurt."
#23 Defenseman Jesse Leonard
“Hurt” is an important qualification to make. It isn’t the same as being injured. In the hockey world, an injury is something you can’t play through – such as a broken limb or a severe concussion. On the other hand, being hurt means that you’ve sustained something you can play with – such as a separated shoulder or, in Dixon’s case, a broken foot.
"Hockey’s not the kind of sport where you just stop playing because it hurts," Oregon forward Connor McBride said. "Are you hurt or are you injured? You don’t play when you’re injured, but you play when you’re hurt."
Even coaches distinguish between the two.
"If you’re hurt, you’re hurt," said Eugene Generals' head coach Justin Kern. "But you wanna try to battle through it no matter what. That’s why it’s up to the team and staff members to make sure the kids are looking after themselves.
"For some guys a hangnail will stop them, but some guys will have a broken leg and still try to skate on it,” he said.
Back: Trevor McCarty, Terran Donnelly, Trevor Shott, Jesse Leonard. Front: Alex Sulitzer.
"The only time I’ve gotten a concussion and not played is when I was unconscious for a little while. Usually I’ll get a concussion and no one will know until after the game when I'm like, ‘I feel funny.'"
-forward Connor McBride
Most of the pressure to continue playing doesn't come from other players. It's a pressure that players put on themselves. During a game last year, forward Cody Drees tore his ACL, sprained his MCL, damaged his meniscus, dislocated his knee and tore his patellofemoral tendon. After getting off the ice, he briefly attempted to come out and play another shift, but without stability in his knee, he was unable to turn.
It was when he took off his knee pad and saw his swollen joint that he knew something was wrong.
"I hated watching (them play) because I wanted to get out there and work hard for them," Drees said about sitting out last season. "They’re your brothers, you want to go out and work hard for them. They’re out there busting their ass."
To a layperson, the list of injuries for the Ducks this season is considerable:
Oregon forward Patrick Sgarlata sustained a minor knee injury in a pre-season exhibition game as well as a concussion later in the season.
Defenseman Joe Hoover hurt his knee in an I-5 Cup game.
Defenseman Jesse Leonard injured his shoulder in a game against Arizona State and was forced to miss practice.
Defenseman Michael Luke cracked his rib and sustained a high-grade ankle sprain that put him on the bench for the last half of the season.
None of these were considered serious in the eyes of the players.
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Separated AC Joint
Concussion in the Frontal Lobe
Even Luke’s past shoulder injuries aren’t considered rare or severe. Shoulder separations and dislocations are some of the most common injuries in the sport. The frequent collisions at high velocities simply don’t bode well for the area.
By the time players reach the college level, a lot are feeling the wear and tear of years of the sport. Many on the Oregon hockey team started playing around the age of four.
Forward Chris Campbell took last season off – the first time he had ever skipped a season since starting hockey 12 years ago – due to persistent injuries and wanting to focus on school.
He’s back now, and says that his year off “sucked,” despite getting relief from years of accumulated pain.
And this season, McBride, a fifth-year senior using his final year of eligibility, made the decision not to return to competitive hockey after sustaining a concussion in late October.
"I don't want another concussion," McBride said of his choice. "I'm over it."
The concussion was his fifth in four years. Before he made the decision to quit, he originally declined to admit how many concussions he's had. He was afraid that Oregon hockey staff would make him sit out if they knew.
McBride’s number one rule to keep playing: "Don’t ever tell the trainer you have a concussion."
"The only time I’ve gotten a concussion and not played is when I was unconscious for a little while,” he said. “Usually I’ll get a concussion and no one will know until after the game when I'm like, ‘I feel funny.'"
He also noted that even though he wouldn’t tell trainers about a concussion during a game, sometimes he wouldn't feel symptoms until he got home – an occurrence which concussion specialist Dr. Michael Koester says isn't unusual.
Concussions aren't unique to McBride or the sport. Although official injury rates and statistics don’t exist for the Ducks’ division in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the National Institutes of Health reported that concussions made up 7.9 percent of all NCAA men's ice hockey injuries in the span of 16 seasons between 1988-89 and 2003-04. The rate was the second highest in the NCAA out of 15 sports and second only to women's ice hockey (18.3 percent).
For the players, the culture of self-sacrifice and playing through pain is what strengthens their bond on and off the ice.
"Obviously you get closer playing together and going into battle together," Drees said.
“That’s why you see fighting in hockey," McBride said. "It's because you’re protecting each other. You’re standing up for each other.”
It's the loyalty to teammates, hard-work and sacrifice that makes hockey such a tight-knit sport and Oregon such a tight-knit team.
"We’re always going to be teammates," McBride said. "Even in 20 years when we’re doing God-knows-what, we'll always be a team."
#1 Goaltender Danny Cockriel
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