On the bus from National Airport to Capital Centre Sunday night, following a tie in Detroit, the ever-so-loose Washington Capitals were waging a war that Jimmy Carter would have enjoyed. The weapons were peanuts.
"The guys on this team are nuts," commented one Capital who tired of dodging shells.
It has long been an observation of sports fans that hockey players in general have to be nuts to crash into each other at high velocity night after night. And guys who allow themselves to be patched together or stitched up and thrown right back into the action are considered crazier than most.
The ultimate story in that context concerns Toronto defenseman Bob Baun, who suffered a broken ankle, was jabbed with pain killer and returned to score the winning goal in overtime of a key Stanley Cup game.
The Capitals have had their share of wounded heroes, who refused to sit in the stands despite considerable pain. One is Dennis Hextall, who tonight at Capital Centre against Detroit will be playing his third straight game with a cracked rib, suffered in a tie with Montreal March 5.
What makes Hextall different from most who toil in pain is that his injury is public knowledge. NHL general managers have long enforced a closed-door policy against the press in the dressing room before games, unlike other sports, because they do not want such injuries to be made known to the opposition, who they fear might try to aggravate them.
Hextall revealed his rib problem in Detroit Sunday, to let everyone know just how badly he wanted to return to Olympia to oppose the team that left him in limbo for two months before permitting him to be waived elsewhere.
"I can't skate as well as I'd like to, but I'm all right," Hextall said. "The fans in Detroit were good to me and I wanted to come here and play a good game for them."
Now that the Wings know Hextall is hurting, one must consider the GM fixation and wonder whether his former teammates will be banging elbows into his ribs tonight. It is not likely. Hockey players sometimes perform like homicidal maniacs, but they have a code of the ice that frowns on taking advantage of a guy who has the guts to keep playing in pain.
Defenseman Jack Lynch could see pretty well yesterday, but when he played against St. Louis Saturday Lynch was a sight for sore eyes. His right eye was taped open so he could see, following a collision with Blair Stewart's knee in practice the day before.
"I wanted them to slice it open or leech it and get the bad blood out," Lynch said, "but they wouldn't do it. So they taped the eye open. There was nothing that was going to get me out of the lineup, not after I waited so long to get back in."
Defenseman Rick Green, who has a sore shoulder, is a "possible" for tonight, when the Caps put their sixgame unbeaten string on the line.
There was suspicion 18 months ago that Green was afraid to play hurt, after he complained of pain from strained ligaments in his wrist. But he silenced his critics by playing three games with a shoulder separation before X-rays revealed the extent of that problem.
Rookie Ryan Walter played in pain for six weeks earlier this season, his chest taped after cartilage was torn loose around the rib cage.
Pete Scamurra, before knee surgery put him out of the lineup, played for several weeks with both a shoulder problem and extreme stomach acidity. Instead of admiration for his courage, he received derision for below-par play. That is a major risk of playing hurt, secretly.
There are times, of course, when a player has no business being on the ice and publicity can be the avenue to a show of common sense that is otherwise lacking. Farly in his Capital career, Bob Sirois suffered a bruised kidney and was passing blood, a circumstance the team's trainer made public. The trainer was chastised from above for his indiscretion, but at least he removed any temptation of putting Sirois on the ice, where he could have been injured seriously.