For Clark, Credibility in That Gap

Capitals captain Chris Clark, in his seventh NHL season, had never had a tooth knocked out. He lost two against Boston last week but kept playing.
Capitals captain Chris Clark, in his seventh NHL season, had never had a tooth knocked out. He lost two against Boston last week but kept playing. (By Len Redkoles -- Getty Images)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Washington Capitals captain Chris Clark had not lost a tooth in 373 NHL games, an accomplishment for any hockey player, more impressive for one who spends the majority of his time battling in the corners.

But Clark's good fortune ran out in the waning seconds of Wednesday's game against Boston, when an errant puck knocked out two of his front teeth and crushed his palate bone.

Clark immediately raised his glove to his mouth. But play didn't stop, so neither did he. With a minute remaining in regulation, the score tied at 2 and the Bruins on the attack, the veteran right wing finished his shift.

"That's why he's captain," General Manager George McPhee said yesterday. "That's one of the most courageous things you'll see on the rink. So the next time someone has a runny nose, or feels under the weather and doesn't think they should play, that should make them think twice."

Clark, who plays on the first line with star Alex Ovechkin, missed two games, but he is expected to return tomorrow against the Atlanta Thrashers.

"There was no sense in laying on the ice," said Clark, who practiced with a cage attached to his helmet. "Laying on the ice wouldn't have made me feel any better. That's never been my way to do it. If it was the playoffs, I wouldn't have missed any time."

By the time the Capitals had lost, 3-2 in a shootout, Clark already was in the care of team dentist Thomas Lenz.

Because the puck was deflected off a stick and into Clark's open mouth, he was spared any injuries to his face. He doesn't wear a visor, which probably wouldn't have helped anyway. But the plastic mouth guard he wears blunted some of the puck's force.

Two of his top teeth are gone. Braces hold three others in place. His palate, meantime, was repaired with the aid of cadaver bone and a screw, inserted during three hours of surgery Thursday morning.

"Right away there wasn't much pain," Clark said. "That came afterward when they were trying to fix things. . . . I'm really fortunate. It could have gone anywhere on my face."

Goaltender Olie Kolzig, in his 15th NHL season, called it the nastiest injury he's seen.

"I've never seen anyone get hurt like that," Kolzig said. "It was gory. To take a puck in the mouth like that is one thing. But to finish his shift, work his butt off to get the puck out of the zone, that's the reason he's our captain."

Through it all, Clark has managed to keep his sense of humor.

"For eight years, people were always trying to jinx me, saying, 'You haven't lost any teeth?' or 'Those your real teeth?' " Clark said. "I was like, 'You don't need to say that.' I guess it was just a matter of time."

Clark then surveyed a locker room full of players missing teeth and quipped, "Now I fit in."

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