PHILADELPHIA – Hockey is the sport where players miss teeth but not shifts.
Players are sliced open by sticks and they block rubber missiles with their bones, but keep playing unless something more than their skin is broken. Rightly or wrongly, hockey embodies the ideal of playing hurt.
And yet, despite this culture and familiarity with injuries, there are incidents so raw and sickening that they frighten players like they frighten the rest of us. One of these injuries occurred halfway through the third period of the Vancouver Canucks’ 2-1 loss Monday to the Philadelphia Flyers when their veteran leader and best defenceman, Alex Edler, lost his balance and gruesomely fell face-first into the ice.
As Edler lay unconscious and bleeding beside the Canucks net, players from both teams immediately waved for medical help, imploring the trainers and doctors to get there quickly.
On a day that began with Canucks winger Sven Baertschi sent home for tests five weeks after returning from a career-threatening concussion, then worsened when Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko suffered a leg injury in the pre-game warmup, losing to the Flyers amid the NHL playoff race was easily the best thing that happened to the Canucks on Monday.
They fired 42 shots on Flyer phenom Carter Hart, the rookie goalie who may soon prove to be Canucks centre Elias Pettersson’s biggest challenger for the Calder Trophy.
Canucks coach Travis Green said he could argue his team played even better in losing to the Flyers, who have won eight straight games, than it did Saturday while dismantling the Colorado Avalanche 5-1 in Denver.
But nobody could argue that this effort was fair compensation for losing Edler to facial injuries. And nobody could say how the Canucks will respond, physically and emotionally, to such a horrible injury and significant loss when Vancouver visits the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night.
Spare defenceman Alex Biega will be in the lineup, and emergency junior call-up Mike DiPietro on the bench to back up starting goalie Jacob Markstrom. But can the Canucks possibly be the same?
“That was awful,” Chris Tanev, Edler’s defence partner and longest-serving teammate, said amid the funereal pall of the Canucks’ dressing room. “I didn’t really know what happened. I just saw the ref blow the whistle and went over and saw Eddie was not in very good shape. Everyone started yelling for the paramedics. He wasn’t in very good shape.”
“As soon as he hit the ice, there was no movement,” centre Bo Horvat said. “I think that’s the scariest part. When you’re knocked unconscious, you just don’t know what’s wrong. And then you see that much blood. We’re just praying for him and hopefully it’s not too serious and he recovers fast.”
Defending a Philadelphia rush, Edler hooked his stick on Jakub Voracek and was torqued off-balance as the Flyers forward skated to the net. The only defence Edler had as he plunged to the ice was his visor, and that may have done as much harm as good, causing gashes to his forehead and cheek.
He lay face-down on the ice for several seconds, spilling blood and barely moving. He was eventually stretchered off and was able to sit up and hold a towel over his bloodied face. The 32-year-old later walked out of the Canucks’ dressing room area and went to hospital for X-rays and a CT scan on his face and head.
“It shakes you a bit,” veteran centre Brandon Sutter said. “I guess it’s part of the game, but that’s not fun. I’m sure his head is bugging him but hopefully it’s just minor — a minor concussion or something like that. He wasn’t moving very much; it’s scary. The cuts didn’t look great either.”
“Our thoughts are with Eagle, not just to see somebody go down but go down in that way,” winger Tyler Motte said. “He means a lot to this group. I think we’re still trying to gather what happened and what kind of shape he’s in, but I’m sure he’ll be out for a bit. We’re going to miss him.”
The questions are: How much and for how long?
“It goes through your head a little bit,” coach Travis Green said. “Guys are used to (injuries); it sounds a little bit barbaric. But you are used to it. To see him go off the ice and sitting up, I think was good for both teams. Eddie doesn’t go down too often, so you knew he was hurt.”
The Canucks have battled their way back into the playoff race by going 13-7-3 the last two months. They survived earlier injuries to forward stars Pettersson and Brock Boeser. But there were only two games when both were out, and there was still Horvat available to drive the attack.
There is no replacement for Edler, who leads the Canucks with an average nightly ice time of 23:30. He is first out on the power play and the penalty kill and the rest of time plays against the opposition’s top line.
It was impressive the way the Canucks pushed for a tying goal in the final 10:22 after Edler was hurt. Hart made a game-saving, diving save on Nikolay Goldobin on a late Vancouver power play.
Voracek decided the game on a beautiful breakaway, reaching like Mario Lemieux – or a 747 aircraft – to tuck the puck around Markstrom and make it 2-0 at 3:20 of the second period, a few seconds after Tanev fanned on the puck and fell at the Philadelphia blue line.
Boeser scored for the Canucks less than two minutes later, shooting into a semi-open net after Hart outraced Brandon Sutter to a loose puck only to play it to Boeser, but Vancouver couldn’t generate a tying goal over the final 35 minutes.
“It was a helluva game,” Green said.
And still an awful night for the Canucks.