For the Capitals, silence is golden when it comes to players' injuries

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alex Ovechkin picked himself up off the ice and glided gingerly toward the bench before disappearing down the tunnel that leads to the locker room at Verizon Center.

Moments after Ovechkin went down during last month's loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team spokesman announced that he "may return" to that night's game. Ovechkin did not. The following afternoon, the team downgraded the ebullient winger's status to "week to week with an upper-body strain."

The world's best hockey player was injured. But in the hours and days that followed, there were more questions than answers. How did it happen? Where exactly was he hurt? How serious was the injury? Ovechkin wasn't saying, and neither were the Washington Capitals -- which is just how General Manager George McPhee wants it.

The Capitals prohibit trainers, doctors and players from discussing injuries publicly for three reasons: 1) McPhee doesn't want the opposition to target wounded Washington players; 2) it forces opposing coaches to guess what the lineup might look like; and 3) because they can.

Unlike the NFL, the NHL does not mandate that its clubs disclose information about injuries. The league's policy -- McPhee was among its biggest proponents -- is spelled out in a one-paragraph memo from Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly dated Sept. 24, 2008.

"Clubs no longer are required to disclose the specific nature of player injuries," the policy reads in part. "But under no circumstances should Club personnel provide untruthful information about the nature of a player injury or otherwise misrepresent a player's condition."

"Unless it's an injury that everyone sees occur, in order to protect the players, we try not to disclose it," McPhee said. "It's a competitive game and it's about winning at all costs. You're always trying to get an edge. You're trying to be a good sport about things, but if a guy is too sore to be out there, he shouldn't be out there. And if you can knock him out for the rest of the game without any long-term injuries, most guys are going to do it."

Hockey teams have historically been vague about injuries during the playoffs, when players are most likely to attempt to play through pain. But since the league's policy went into effect prior to the 2008-09 season, some teams have begun to list even the most minor ailments as "upper body" or "lower body" -- if they list anything at all.

The policy is controversial amongst fans, media and even the players themselves.

"It's a little silly when you see a guy go off and he's clearly hurt his leg, and then they say it's a lower-body injury," said Ray Ferraro, a longtime NHL player who now is part of TSN's broadcast team. "Or a guy gets his head bounced off the glass and you get 'upper-body injury.' It doesn't have to be like the NFL, when they say it's a broken toe. But it would be nice to have a little information.

"When [Detroit Red Wings star] Henrik Zetterberg comes back, I don't think anyone is going to target his shoulder," he added. "How do you target his shoulder anyway? You hit him hard, which they try to do anyway."

Whether targeting is prevalent or effective is debatable. Some Capitals said they're aware of opponents' injuries, while others have no idea who's hurt on the other team.

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