I’ve been hit in the helmet by a puck a few times. One that I remember really clanged into my temple: a warm-up slapshot by a teammate as I skated behind the net. I shook it off and laughed, as you do. Abused the relieved and apologetic teammate and skated on.
Because that’s what usually happens, isn’t it? Just as almost every lost skate-edge near the boards leads to nothing more than some bruises, usually to the ego. Just as every dangerously raised stick usually leads to no more than a clank and a grunt and some cursing and maybe a penalty if the refs are on their game. Possibly some blood if the player is wearing a visor instead of a cage. Just a flesh wound, as the Black Knight liked to say.
But every now and then the script runs differently. Sometimes sport goes as wrong as it possibly can. Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died today, two days after being struck in the back of his skull by the hard red leather ball, trying to hook a bouncer and missing it. By the sort of bastard quirks of fate that are always involved in such horrific incidents, the ball somehow snuck under his helmet to directly hit his skull, fracturing it and cutting a major artery. Despite surgery and an induced coma, he never woke up.
What do we, hockey players in what we know can be a dangerous sport, take from a tragedy like this? Not a lot, to be honest. We just remind ourselves never to turn our back on the puck, as my coach sagely advised on Facebook a few minutes ago. We also fall back into the comfort of statistics: consider how many thousands and thousands of cricketers are playing the game every week around the world. One has fallen, when everything managed to line up to go as wrong as it could. Such a sports death is oh so genuinely tragic – a word that gets used way too much – but it’s an accident. Nothing more, nothing less.
Cricket, like hockey, can be dangerous and we can forget that. Then something like Phillip Hughes’ death brings that knowledge flooding back in a shock.
Our sport is no different. There are so so so so many hockey players skating around the rinks of the world, people. Amateurs, sub-professionals, NHL stars, learners, kids, enthusiasts, academy students, college players… the list goes on and on. Even in Australia, something like 20,000 players crowd onto our too-few rinks.
The reality is that some of those players will get hurt. That slightly awkward angle of a shoulder hitting boards that breaks bones instead of bouncing off. That puck that finds an unprotected side knee instead of the usual thick padding. Those tiny, random, impossible-to-plan-for moments. A goalie friend of mine tore his groin yesterday, making a save. He makes how many saves every week, every year? This one his body didn’t cope with, for whatever reason.
It will happen when we put ourselves at risk. Let’s face it, maybe a player will even get hit hard in the head, by the rubber puck. God, I hope not, and I feel genuinely ill at the idea of my son or my teammates being hurt. But there’s no way for us to plan or avoid that fraction of a second anyway, and the odds are that we’ll all be okay.
None of this, by the way, is to wave off Phillip Hughes’ death. Far from it. I feel heartsick at his demise: have been obsessed with worrying for his health since it happened. I don’t even know why: I’m nowhere near as into cricket as I used to be now that the NHL and my own hockey dominates my Australian summer. But I felt like I knew Hughes, from watching his brief spectacular and spluttering Test career and I liked the way he carried himself, his unusual cavalier batting style and the way he backed himself although small and slight. His death has hit me hard. Hell, maybe it’s simply because I am a parent? I ache for his family, and the poor paceman who bowled the ball that accidentally killed him.
But for all of this sorrow, I’m trying to retain context, to retain poise. For anybody skating today, or playing this weekend, as we are against the Wolverines on Sunday, such context is important so that we can skate hard, throw ourselves into those crazy situations we usually do, and emerge smiling. Sport is 99 per cent healthy fun.
We humans can tend to look for ‘meaning’ in tragedy, to look for lessons or truths. As I’ve written before – especially after the equally tragic too-young off-ice death of a hockey mate, Charlie Srour, or the Russian plane crash that killed a former Red Wing and his entire team – I think the reality is that there is a lot of randomness in the universe and sometimes there is no sense, no reason why Hughes dies just short of his 26th birthday from a misjudged hook shot and Nick Place survives falling off a large cliff when I was 15 … it just is.
Blind shithouse luck, or a lack of it when it matters.
The Hockey Gods will mostly look after us skaters and, anyway, there’s no point dwelling on the fraction of a small chance that something might go wrong. If it does, it does. Enjoy your sport, as Phillip Hughes obviously did. Raise a glass for him as I plan to, shed a tear, and then strap on your skates. Go to where the puck will be, not where the puck is.
And I can’t tell you how much I mean it when I say: I hope you’ll be safe.