NHL coaches, players split on vague injury descriptions
Veteran coach Ken Hitchcock struck a nerve earlier this season when he decried the longstanding NHL practice of describing injuries in the vaguest terms possible.
An injury can be upper-body, lower-body or undisclosed, except Hitchcock and the Dallas Stars prefer to be more forthright. Defenseman Marc Methot had a knee injury, Martin Hanzal had a hamstring injury and Stephen Johns was dealing with concussion symptoms.
“Rather than go through the dance and play the big game, we just decided let’s get it out there so they can print it, move on and let’s get on with the subject of what’s going on on the team,” said Hitchcock, who coached the Blues from 2011 through Feb. 1, 2017.
This is a far cry from the world of the NFL, where teams must reveal specific injuries. Coaches and NHL officials point to gambling and fantasy football as driving forces behind those detailed NFL injury reports, noting hockey has far less of that; one NHL player even joked that it would be foolish for anyone to bet on the sport.
Yet more people are. Westgate sports book vice president Jay Kornegay said the addition and success of the Vegas Golden Knights has at least tripled the amount of bets placed on NHL games this season. He said the gambling public isn’t affected much by the information, or lack thereof, about injuries.
“There’s information out there if you really want to dissect the injury,” Kornegay said. “There’s only maybe a handful of guys that might make a major impact, like (Connor) McDavid or (Auston) Matthews or someone like that. Could make maybe a 15-cent impact in the line, which is very minimal. Almost everybody else is like zero impact or maybe five cents impact. … It wouldn’t be like (Tom) Brady being out.”
The NHL represents less than 5 percent of the total amount bet at the Westgate, and less than 6 percent for online sports book Bovada.
League executives and coaches have little to no appetite to change things.
“I would ask the question, ‘Why is it important that you know everything?'” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said. “I think sometimes it protects the player. Sometimes a player’s working through an injury. If he’s coming back, opponents might know. If it’s a knee injury, they might try to take advantage of it.”
The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t require any specificity be included in injury announcements. And that means they vary dramatically among the 31 teams.
NHL Injury Viz, which tracks information about player injuries and illnesses, ranks teams on an “evasiveness index” based on how many injuries are called upper- or lower-body, undisclosed or soreness. Through Jan. 20 games, the Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers were labeled the most evasive, while the New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild were the most open.
When Washington Capitals winger Andre Burakovsky underwent surgery to repair a broken left thumb in October, the team announced it as such. Upon his return, Burakovsky wore extra padding and worried little about opponents hacking at his thumb to try to reinjure it.
“When I’m playing, I’m playing,” Burakovsky said. “I don’t really focus on if they’re going to go after my thumb or whatever it is.”
The central debate over disclosure comes down to whether revealing specific injuries puts players in danger of being targeted. Hitchcock said “there’s too much respect in the league” for that, but Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik disagreed.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of guys, but there’s definitely more than a handful of (players) in the league that would target guys if they knew where they were hurt,” Orpik said. “I don’t really see what you gain by releasing it.”
Hitchcock’s comments generated chatter around the league and a variety of opinions, but don’t expect the current system to change anytime soon.
“At the end of the day, I’m not sure it’s really anybody’s right to know exactly what’s ailing a player,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “Perhaps there’s kind of fan interest in how long he’ll be gone, when he can be back to the lineup, et cetera, et cetera, but what the precise nature of the injury is, I’m not sure is really appropriate for public consumption.”
Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said he generally agrees with Hitchcock and doesn’t mind disclosing injuries, except he doesn’t like talking about head injuries. Jets coach Paul Maurice went the other way, saying teams have a “responsibility” to show the NHL is handling concussions the right way but cited privacy concerns in the larger discussion about revealing specific injuries.
Then there’s Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters, who wouldn’t mind an NFL-like policy.
“It’d be nice if the NHL just said, ‘Hey, make it full disclosure.’ I’d have no problem with that — as long as it’s consistent across the board,” Peters said.