By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; D01
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.
"I don't care," defenseman Brian Pothier said. "What's the other team going to do? Cross check me in the rib? That happens every game. No one's going to come after you thinking, 'Okay, it's his left rib, and I'm going to try to get you.' If someone's actually thinking about that on the ice, then they're not thinking about playing."
Pothier has missed the past five games with a sore ribcage. The only reason the nature of his injury became public is because Coach Bruce Boudreau let it slip during a news conference last week.
"It started in the playoffs, then everybody started to do it," said Boudreau, also a former player. "Everybody is so secretive. I don't understand it. I don't know how much the players pay attention to who's hurt and who's not. But I can tell you I do not, as a coach, say, 'Hey, listen, that guy's got a pulled groin, he might not be able to turn.' Or, 'That guy is coming off a shoulder injury, so hit him.' I've never once ever said that."
But center David Steckel didn't need Boudreau to tell him about New York Rangers captain Chris Drury's sore wrist in the playoffs last season.
"When he took faceoffs, I knew he had a bad wrist," Steckel said. "And I took faceoffs accordingly. I wouldn't slash his wrists, but I would know where to put pressure on his stick to where maybe he might not be able to hold his stick tight enough to win a draw."
Capitals captain Chris Clark said if he knows of an opponent's injury, he makes sure to finish his checks on that player in the hopes of wearing him down.
"I'm not saying that if a guy's got a hurt ankle, you're slashing him there," Clark said. "But if you do know somebody is ailing, maybe you press on him a little harder."
In the NFL, an injury list comes out every Wednesday and is updated throughout the week. The league's popularity is fueled by gambling and fantasy football, two activities that rely on information regarding the availability of particular players.
NFL teams must disclose whether an injured player practiced, which body part is hurt and the probability of him playing in the team's next game. "This policy is of paramount importance to maintaining the integrity of the NFL," the policy reads.
But while the NFL is worried about its integrity, McPhee simply wants to protect his investments -- and will go to great lengths in order to do so.
The day after Ovechkin was injured against the Blue Jackets, the star winger pulled into the parking lot of the team's practice facility in Arlington. He hopped out of his car and walked briskly through the revolving door, ignoring requests from reporters who had been camped out in front of Kettler Capitals Iceplex for hours.
Ovechkin was examined by team doctors inside, and then instead of coming back through the front door and facing the cameras and microphones, he left through a back entrance out of reporters' view, catching a ride home from his father.
Ovechkin's injury, a strain near his left shoulder, healed faster than expected; he missed only six games. Since returning, the two-time goal-scoring champion said that he has not felt like he's been playing with a bull's-eye on his back.
Ovechkin understands why there's so much curiosity surrounding the particulars of his injuries, but, like McPhee, he doesn't think it's anyone else's business.
"Sometimes, especially when playoffs are coming, and you have some injury, different players know what you have, they try to hit your injury, so it's probably good," Ovechkin said.
"I try to emphasize that I'm doing this to protect you," McPhee said he told the players during a preseason meeting. "We'll do our best to keep it quiet so you can play."