Ron Cook: Football players are tough, but hockey players are tougher
April 18, 2017 12:00 AM
Penguins center Nick Bonino showed some toughness Sunday night after he took a puck to the face but returned to finish the game.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
COLUMBUS, Ohio — I can’t remember one football conversation with former Pitt coach Paul Chryst, but I have vivid memories of our chat about hockey. It was in the press box at what was then known as Consol Energy Center during a Penguins playoff game. Chryst knew somebody who knew somebody who got him a seat. The hitting on the ice that night was especially ferocious.
“I know you probably will disagree, but I’m convinced hockey players are the toughest athletes in sports,” I said.
“I agree,” Chryst said. “They’re definitely tougher than football players.”
I thought about that exchange Sunday night in Game 3 of the Penguins-Columbus playoff series when Nick Bonino of the Penguins and Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets took pucks flush to the face and returned to the ice. Bonino, who initially thought he might have fractured his cheekbone, was able to finish the Penguins’ 5-4 overtime win, wearing a full-face shield and getting nearly 17 minutes of ice time. Werenski, a terrific young defenseman at 19, was not so fortunate. He played in the third period, also with a full-face shield, but couldn’t return for overtime because his right eye swelled nearly shut. He did fracture his cheekbone and is done for the series. A picture of him taken after the game is frightening. It is all over the internet if you have the stomach to look at it.
“It’s like he should be Rocky and look for Mick to cut him,” Rick Tocchet said Monday.
Tocchet, a Penguins assistant coach and a man who might just be the toughest player in NHL history, seemed like the perfect guy to ask about Bonino and Werenski. He broke his jaw in a Penguins game at Chicago late in the team’s Stanley Cup-winning 1992 season and came back to score the winning goal in the game. He ended up fighting a couple of times soon after because, as he has said, “I had to stand up for my guys.”
“I don’t know if it’s passed down from generation to generation,” Tocchet said. “Maybe it’s something that’s just bred in hockey players. But there are certain injuries that you say, ‘I’m going to play, no matter what.’ It’s like when you block a shot and you’re in incredible pain. You don’t realize until after the game that your foot might be broken. You just keep playing.”
Bobby Baun is the most famous example of player toughness. A Toronto defenseman, he kept playing on a broken ankle and scored the winning goal in overtime against Detroit in Game 6 of the 1964 Cup final. But there have been so many other examples. Jaromir Jagr played for the Penguins in the 1999 playoffs on a bad groin that would have left most men unable to walk and scored the tying goal late and the winning goal in overtime in Game 6 against the New Jersey Devils. Boston’s Gregory Campbell broke his right leg when he blocked a shot by Evgeni Malkin in the 2013 playoffs and played 40 more seconds to help kill a Penguins power play. And how about Eric Belanger, Ryan Reaves and Kevin Hayes all sitting on the bench and yanking teeth out of their mangled mouth?
Hockey players aren’t just tough. They’re also crazy.
Bob Errey tells of how players followed a six-stitch rule during his playing career. They wouldn’t take Novocain for a cut on the face that required six or fewer stitches because that enabled them to get back in the game quicker. Think about that. Imagine a fish hook going through your skin six times without a pain-killer.
“Ah, Bobby must be tougher than me,” Tocchet, a former teammate of Errey’s with the Penguins, said, grinning. “Or maybe he’s exaggerating a little. I remember taking three or four stitches without the Novocain and I can tell you it hurts.”
Werenski took what appeared to be about a dozen stitches on his right cheek. Players and coaches on both teams were amazed he returned to the game when they realized how close he came to losing his right eye.
“[Heart] as big as the building,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said, mentioning a different part of Werenski’s body than his heart.
“It doesn’t surprise me with him.”
Tortorella went on to call Werenski “probably our best player,” which doesn’t bode well for the Blue Jackets in Game 4 Tuesday night.
The Penguins also weren’t surprised that Bonino returned to the game. He routinely gives up his body for the team. He led all NHL forwards with 99 blocked shots in the regular season and had five more in the first three games of the Columbus series.
“You’d have to drag him off the stage,” Tocchet said.
“I think the fact he takes the puck in the face and we don’t lose him for very long is just a testament to his competitive spirit,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He wants to win and he wants to be on the ice.
“He’s just such an important player for us. We use him in so many key situations. He’s really good at both ends of the rink. He’s a real cerebral player. He has good awareness away from the puck. He’s tough. He’s one of our shot-blockers. He’s one of our penalty-killers. He’s a guy we go to to defend leads late in games when our opponents pull goalies. He certainly is a very important player for this team.”
Bonino joked after the game when he met the media that his face wasn’t great because “all of this talking is not the best thing.” He promised to “be good to go” for Game 4, although he shrugged and said something curious when asked if he feared he still might have fractured his cheekbone. “We won’t find out until after the season.”
That brought back memories of Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis during his days with the Steelers. He played much of a season with broken ribs and didn’t know it. He purposely didn’t get them X-rayed because he didn’t want to know.
I know, football players are tough, too.
Just not quite as tough as hockey players.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter@RonCookPG. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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