The lastest member of the Washington Capitals to be slowed by the injury jinx is trainer Gump Embro. He has a sore back, most likely the result of long postgame hours spent hunched over a desk, filling out the forms required by the National Hockey League whenever a player is hurt.
For the Capitals, that has involved a lot of paperwork. So far this season, 12 players have missed at least one game because of injury, totaling 48 man-games. Considering that the Capitals have played less than one-fifth of the schedule, the lost time is devastating.
"Every time we turn around, every game we play somebody get hurts," said Coach Danny Belisle. "I've never seen anything like it in all my years in hockey."
Dennis Maruk, still the club's leading scorer although he played only eight games, was the most seriously injured. He suffered a torn ligament in his right knee and is unlikely to play again the this season.
Other struck by serious injuries were defensemen Paul MacKinnon and Pierre Bouchard. MacKinnon, who underwent lengthy surgery Wednesday, figures to be out a month with a broken jaw and cheekbone. Bouchard, who earlier missed seven games with a pulled groin muscle, is an indefinite spectator with an ucommon separation of the breastbone and collarbone. Idle now but likely to return for tonight's home game against Buffalo are winger Bob Sirois, out for eight games with strained back muscles, and center Dennis Hextall, who has watched the last two contests while nursing a groin pull.
Others who have seen sidelined this season include winger Antero Lehtonen, five games with a broken finger; center Guy Charron, four games with Rick Green, three games with a bruised ankle; winger Mike Gartner, two games with a charley horse in his right thigh; defenseman Pete Scamurran, four games with a jammed right hand; defenseman Leif Syensson, one game with a bruised hp, and center Rolf Edberg, one game with a bruised right hand.
"There was some criticism about our carrying extra centers and defensemen when the season started, but they are like workmen's compensation -- you have to have insurance," said General Manager Max McNab, who went on to discuss the many ways inuries can hurt a club.
"The obvious result is that you lose the player's ability, somebody like Maruk being impossible to replace," McNab said. "You also lose his appeal and it costs you fans, Salaries go up, because you replace him with somebody like (Claude) Noel, who goes on a major-league salary.
"Injuries cost hundreds of thousands in pension benefits, in lost salaries, in insurance costs. The league is very conscious of the tremendous cost factor."
The trainers' reports are forwarded to the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, where they are computerized and broken down according to categories. Last year's final report was alarming -- a 31 percent increase in serious injuries.
Overall, the league lost 2,755 games through injury and illness and, based on a 19-man roster, that figures out to an astonishing absentee rate of 10.9 percent. Washington had a 242 man-game loss, second-worst in the league, after two years as the injury king.
McNab has lost considerable sleep trying to rationalize the Capitals' penchant for injury, but he can offer only conjecture: "Maybe it's because of our lack of experience. Oung guys get hit in awkward situations that a veteran is more aware of and can anticipate. Some clubs have had high figures one year and gone down, but none matches our record. Hopefully, one year we'll drop into double figures."
Many of the injuries seem unavoidable, particularly where knees are concerned. Players skating at high spped do not need to be checked hard to be disabled. Maruk, for example, received a seemingly innocuous bump from Vancouver's Thomas Gradin and there was no thought of serious damage until an arthroscopic examination was conducted three days later.
MacKinnon was struck in the face by a puck, another common injury among defensemen that can only be avoided by universl adoption of face shields. Such shields are now required at certain levels of youth hockey, but the pros are likely to resist them, as they did helmets, until the kids
The Bouchard injury is one that should never have happened. He was boarded by Winnipeg's Jimmy Mann after touching the puck on an icing violation.
In international hockey, icing is whistled as soon as the puck crosses the goal line. However, the NHL, in the interest of continuous play, forces a defensive player to touch it. If he should lag behind, he can be outhustled by an offensive player and no whistle will be necessary.
Unfortunately, too many offensive players, who cannot quite get there in time, use the opportunity to blast the defender nto the boards.
Proper enforcement of the penalty for boarding might provide a deterrent. Whistling icing when the puck crosses the goal line certainly would end the situation, rather than end players' careers, as happened to Washington winger Mike Lampman when he was boarded and suffered vertebrae slippage in 1976.
"The problem with calling the icing that way is that players tend to just stop and watch the puck," said supervisor of officials Frank Udvari. "Sometimes, the puck doesn't even reach the goal line and here everybody is up ice watching it and play just comes to a halt."
"There are cases where the offensive guy outhustles the other guy and a scoring play develops." McNab agreed. "But I think the goal-line call has merit. There are too many cases where skates catch on that paricular play and ankles and legs are damaged. Besides, a quicker whistle would penalize a team that is just sending the puck down the ice late in a game."
Another potential anger is the iron goal cage. Few who were in Oakland in 1974 when Washington's Jim Hrycuik skated into the post and hopelessly tore up his knee will ever forget the sound. Hockey people have tried for years to construct a safer cage, without success.
"When I was in San Diego, a doctor who was a hockey fan saw a guy get a broken leg and spent two years working on a plastic goal pipe," McNab said. "He made a contraption with a sled and sandbags to represent the weight of a body and really worked at it."
"Under certain pressure, the pipe would snap, rather than hurt somebody. The problem, and one that was never solved, was that he couldn't get a plastic that wouldn't freeze after 10 minutes. It just isn't practical to change the cage every 10 minutes."
"It's still a concern, because we get two or three bad ones a year and if someone could come up with a successful replacement, he'd get rich."
The Capitals have been beset by disabling injuries since their birth in 1974 and the knee surgery alone ahs kept orthopedic surgeon Pat Palumbo sharpening his scalpel without respite. This is the first time, however, that pulled muscles have been prevalent. Belisle thinks it may be a result of the club's training-camp format in Hershey.
For the first time, the Capitals used full-scale scrimmages over the first three days to determine the makeup of the roster. Then they moved right on into the exhbition schedule, which included five games in six days at varied sites spread from Springfield, Mass. to Calgary, Alberta.
"We're going to have to review that," Belisle said. "First of all, I think we had too many people at camp and guys who had no chance to make the team took ice time from the other guys.
"Then, we probably moved into too strenuous play too soon. But I think the worst part was that western trip we took. We were playing every day and never got to practice, which means guys were only skating 15 minutes a time when they needed a lot more conditioning."
Hockey, like football, cannot eliminate injuries. It is interesting to see how some players manage to avoid them, however. Garry Unger of Atlanta has played in a remarkable 896 consecutive games. And Gordie Howe, almost killed in a 1950 accident, still is playing at age 51 after suffering only one more injury of note, a rib problem that kept him out of 13 games during the 1970-71 season.
McNab thinks he knows their secret.
"You hve to play every game like an animal being hunted," McNab said.
Apparently, it is open season on the Capitals and the hunters are bagging the limit.