Playing with pain is in their blood

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The big surprise isn't that Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis played Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers with 37 stitches above his right eye from a gash so deep that doctors could put a finger in and touch his skull. The surprise was that Dupuis didn't play against the Washington Capitals Thursday night after ramming face-first into the boards two nights earlier, leaving him momentarily unconscious and his blood turning the Mellon Arena ice a hideous red.

"Couldn't play that game. The eye was swollen completely shut," Dupuis said, almost apologetically.

But if the swelling had dissipated just a bit and the eye had opened just a crack for Dupuis to be able to see? There's no doubt he would have played against the Capitals. That's what hockey players do. They are the toughest athletes in all of pro sports. Dupuis is among the toughest of the toughest.

"You want to be out there," Dupuis said. "You don't want to miss any games. These are big games right now. Division games. If you feel like you can help the team, you want to be out there."

So Dupuis took a regular shift against the Flyers, skating with center Sidney Crosby and winger Bill Guerin on the first line in the Penguins' 2-1 win. He didn't make it on the score sheet in his nearly 15 minutes of ice time, but he willingly gave up his body -- again -- to block a big slap shot by Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger in the second period.

This sort of thing is hardly unusual in hockey. Players don't want to be known as soft. They don't want to let down their teammates. Maybe most of all, they don't want to lose their job. As Penguins center Jordan Staal said the other day, "They'll replace you pretty quickly if you start complaining about injuries too much or missing too many games."

Perhaps the most famous tough-guy hockey story came during the 1964 Stanley Cup final when Toronto defenseman Bob Baun scored the winning goal against Detroit in overtime of Game 6 despite playing on a broken ankle. The Maple Leafs went on to win Game 7 and the Cup.

The Penguins have had their share of similar stories. Staal briefly left the game against New Jersey Dec. 21 to get some stitches -- "Just five or six" is how he put it -- on his broken nose, then returned to the action. In Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup final against Detroit, winger Ryan Malone stuck gauze up his broken nose and played on. In that same game, defenseman Sergei Gonchar creaked back on the ice in the third overtime after missing three periods with a bad back and set up teammate Petr Sykora's winning goal. Going back further in team history, winger Rick Tocchet returned to a game in Chicago with a cracked jaw and scored two third-period goals in a 4-3 win.

Then, there's Dupuis.

He was checked from behind into the boards Tuesday night by New York Islanders defenseman Andy Sutton. "The first thing I remember was the ref saying, 'Stay down. It's pretty bad. The trainer and doctor are coming,' " he said. "I knew it was bad. My helmet was a bucketful of blood."

Sutton received a five-minute boarding penalty and a 10-minute game misconduct late in the Penguins' 6-4 win and was suspended for two games by the NHL the next day. That did little to ease Dupuis' pain after he was helped to the locker room.

"I felt nauseous, like I needed cold water," Dupuis said. "So I stuck my head in the sink and turned on the cold water. Finally, someone said, 'C'mon, Duper, you've got to get out of there. You're filling it up.' I was bleeding like a waterfall. The next thing I know, they're poking me with a needle a couple of times to dull the pain and stitching me up."

Teammate Max Talbot, who had left the game earlier with a groin injury after taking a whack from Islanders goaltender Dwayne Roloson's stick, immediately telephoned Dupuis' wife, Carole-Lyne, to tell her he appeared to be OK, if a little less handsome because of the deep cut and the swelling that already was starting. "She wasn't watching the game at the time so she didn't know anything had happened," Dupuis said. "But the rest of my family was watching. My parents [Lise and Claude] in Quebec. My friends. I received 28 messages right away and about 150 in the next day or so from people wondering if I was all right."

Dupuis knows he was lucky. He could have lost his eye. He could have lost his life the way his neck snapped back from the force of his face hitting the boards. The 37 stitches almost seem like nothing.

"Good thing I have big, bushy eyebrows to hide the scar," Dupuis said, grinning.

Just as a precaution, Dupuis left his car at Mellon Arena that night and caught a ride home to Nevillewood from teammate Chris Kunitz. The first thing he did after showing his wife the doctor's stitch work was get on the Internet to see Sutton's hit. "I watched it from every angle," he said. "It was pretty bad."

That didn't stop Dupuis from playing Sunday. By then, most of the swelling and discoloration around his eye were gone. He said he would have no fear of getting hit again. "I guess I'm just too dumb to remember."

No, Dupuis is a hockey player.

Playing hurt, playing in pain, playing with no regard for their health or good looks tomorrow is what they do.

"It's our job," Dupuis said, shrugging.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com .


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