Those of us who were reared on ABC's Â“Wide World of SportsÂ” program know that, for every athlete beaming and screaming in the winner's circle, there are 10 Yugoslavian ski jumpers employing every bone in their body to absorb a landing neither planned nor desired.
Indeed, the joys and agonies that accompany victories and defeats are the coals that fuel all pro sports locomotives. But for the majority of the National Hockey League's 2005-06 season, hockey fans have been captivated mainly by the multitude of positive stories that followed the league's return from lockout. (Note: label does not apply to non-masochistic fans in Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis.)
Lately, though, the NHL has been reminded of just how cruel its game can be. How the wrath of the Hockey Gods can strike randomly and/or repeatedly. How the trajectory of a puck, the consequences of a check, or the limitations of a body can alter lives forever.
Nobody knew much of Islanders tough guy Kevin Colley when he broke his neck in a Jan. 31 game against Washington. The undrafted 27-year-old was one of those players who anonymously gnawed and clawed his way through the minors to earn an NHL job.
Colley's pro career took him from Hartford to Charlotte to Dayton to Pensacola to New Orleans to Atlantic City to Providence to Rochester to Atlantic City (again) to Syracuse to Worcester to Bridgeport. In six seasons, he had eleven changes of address before the Islanders gave him a shot.
The 5-foot-10 Colley had played 16 games without registering a single point for the Isles this season when he was injured. That night against the Capitals, he missed a check and fell headfirst into the boards, fracturing his fifth cervical vertebra. After two surgeries, he is lucky he still is able to walk.
But his hockey playing days are over. In the snap of two fingers, in the crunch of a few bones, all of his work, all of his sacrifice, all undone.
Cruel? Absolutely. Unusual? Hardly.
Last week Â– ironically, the same week the Buffalo Sabres celebrated the achievements of former superstar Pat LaFontaine - two active NHLers who have struggled with head injuries announced the abortion of their seasons.
Like LaFontaine, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau have both suffered numerous concussions that threatened their careers more than once. And both players, former teammates in Philadelphia, are now hearing the R Word all over again.
Primeau, 34, suffered another head trauma in an Oct. 25th game when he was hit by Montreal's Alexander Perezhogin. Primeau already had missed 21 games in the 2003-04 season due to a concussion, and suffered two head injuries in the 2004 playoffs.
After waiting and praying and rehabbing for the last four months, Primeau still wasn't healthy, so he announced his decision to stay sidelined and focus instead on the 2006-07 campaign.
But although he said all the right things about recovering to play again, the look in his eyes said something different. The look in his eyes said, Â‘Next time I stand in front of a bunch of reporters, it might be the last time. It might be The End.'
Nobody is ready for The End. Nobody likes to think their prime has passed before they themselves pronounce it so. But Adam Deadmarsh had to deal with the ugly truth. So did Cam Neely. Pat Peake, too.
And now Lindros, who had fared so well in recuperating from multiple concussions, looks as if he might also have to face The End.
Playing against Ottawa March 4, Lindros was lost for the season, and perhaps for good, when he tore the ligament in his right wrist for the second time in three months.
The game was Lindros' third since missing 26 games the first time he tore it. After so many predictions that a hard check would rattle his head and end his career, a routine slapshot was ultimately what felled the former Â‘Next One'.
The Toronto native had fought for so many seasons Â– really, for his whole career - to play where he wanted to play. He got to live out that dream for exactly 33 games, finally waving the white flag just four days after his 33rd birthday.
Today, Lindros is in limbo, dealing with a different demon than the one he'd become so accustomed to. It was neither his talent nor his desire that betrayed him, but his body.
This is why we don't understand those folks who, citing the potential for catastrophic injuries, complain about the NHL's participation in the Olympics.
Rhyme and reason don't enter into the world of hurt that hovers around hockey players every day. The End really can happen anywhere. At any time. To anybody.
And that Boogeyman-By-Chance is the type of monster who will never go away.
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