FROZEN ROYALTY EXCLUSIVE: It was not so long ago that the Los Angeles Kings dressing room and training room might have looked more like a hospital ward than anything else. After all, back in 2002-03 and 2003-04, they set unofficial records for man-games lost to injury. Retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers had to treat all those injuries, and Frozen Royalty takes a long, hard look back at those disastrous seasons, as well as more of Demers’ thoughts on the mechanics of injuries, their treatment, and their prevention. Part ten of a series.
LOS ANGELES — Right wing Ziggy Palffy displayed great skill and speed when he played for the Los Angeles Kings from 1999-2000 to 2003-04.
Right wing Adam Deadmarsh was hard-nosed, physical, and was a very talented, determined, intense player for the Kings from 2000-01 to 2003-04.
Underrated defenseman Mathieu Schneider showed great ability to quarterback the power play for the Kings from 2000-01 to 2002-03.
Fans might have vivid memories of these and other Kings players from the early 2000’s. Then again, they might not. After all, so many of those players spent more time in the training room than they did on the ice—memories of them could very well be rather hazy up to ten years later.
Although this will undoubtedly bring up bad memories for many, the Kings lost a staggering, unimaginable 1,742 man-games to injury during those seasons (the National Hockey League did not play during the 2004-05 season due to a labor dispute in which the owners locked out the players).
In 2001-02, the rash of injuries began, with the Kings losing 211 man-games to injury. 177 were caused by contact, such as a body check, to go along with 15 muscle pulls or strains, three illnesses, and 16 other assorted injuries.
But even though concussions seemed to be the injury du jour of the time, only two players suffered concussions that season, right wing Nelson Emerson (22 man-games lost) and defenseman Philippe Boucher (one man-game lost).
Leading the team in man-games lost that season was Schneider, who suffered a hernia in November 2001, requiring surgery that forced him to miss 23 games, and center Eric Belanger, who missed 29 games after surgery to repair a badly sprained wrist, an injury suffered on January 15, 2002, against Nashville.
If you think 211 man-games is a lot, as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Indeed, the Kings eclipsed that mark, setting an unofficial NHL record with 536 man-games lost during the 2002-03 season.
That year, 381 man-games were lost to injuries caused by contact while another 110 were lost to muscle pulls or strains. In addition, three man-games were lost to illnesses and 42 to other unclassified injuries.
Leading the way that season was enforcer Ken Belanger, who suffered a concussion during a fight on November 5, 2002 at San Jose. He missed the remaining 69 games.
Right behind Ken Belanger was Deadmarsh, who took a skate to the head in December 2002 while killing a penalty. He missed the remaining 52 games of the season after suffering his second concussion in five weeks.
Also suffering concussions that season were defenseman Brad Norton, along with forwards Steve Heinze, Michael Cammalleri and Jason Allison. In all, the Kings lost 226 man-games to concussions alone that year, accounting for 42.2 percent of the man-games lost that season.
“All of a sudden, we were leading the league in concussions,” Demers lamented.
While Deadmarsh took a skate to the head, not all concussions are caused by direct impact to the head, and that was exactly how Allison suffered his concussion.
“When Jason Allison got hit in Nashville, he landed on his butt,” said Demers. “But it rattled his head so bad, that it ended up being a significant concussion. Stuff like that, you wouldn’t think that would be that much of a thing, but that’s just the way it is.”
“You get guys that don’t hit their head, but they have a torsion where they twist their head, moving themselves quickly, or they fall on their butt, and it rattles their brain,” added Demers.
Chronic injuries also took a significant bite, as forwards Erik Rasmussen (24 man-games lost), Brad Chartrand (ten man-games), and defenseman Aaron Miller (two man-games), all missed time due to chronic back problems.
The Kings would fly right past their record of 536 man-games lost in the 2002-03 season with a mind-boggling, unfathomable 629 man-games lost to injury in 2003-04.
In that disastrous season, 558 man-games were lost to injuries caused by contact, with another 48 lost to a player being hit by a puck. In addition, 15 man-games were lost due to muscle pulls and strains, four due to illness, and four more to unclassified injuries.
Right off the bat, the Kings lost Allison and Deadmarsh, who would miss the entire season due to the concussions they suffered the previous year—a total of 164 man-games lost. Add to that injuries suffered during the pre-season to Norton (lacerated forearm, 37 man-games), Cammalleri (knee sprain, eight man-games), forward prospect Jared Aulin (separated shoulder, 65 man-games), Miller (fractured wrist, eight man-games), defenseman Mattias Norstrom (chest contusion, seven man-games), and the Kings were already destined to lose 289 man-games to injury before they played their second game of the regular season.
Even with Allison and Deadmarsh missing the entire season, the Kings had just three other players, forwards Ian Laperriere (19 man-games) and Esa Pirnes (18 man-games), along with defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (six man-games) suffering concussions that year, accounting for 32.9 percent of the man-games lost in the 2003-04 season.
Things got a little better in 2005-06, with the Kings losing 366 man-games to injury. 124 were caused by contact, 61 were lost to a player getting hit by the puck, 89 were due to muscle pulls or strains, ten were due to illness, and 82 man-games were lost to miscellaneous injuries.
That season, forward Valeri Bure suffered a back injury during the pre-season that required season-ending surgery, so, once again, the Kings had a case of losing a significant number of man-games to injury right off the bat.
As it turned out, he would never play in a regular season or playoff game for the Kings—the injury ended his NHL career.
Looking at the injury records from these years is quite revealing in that it shows that many players had chronic injuries that the Kings inherited, such as Rasmussen’s, Chartrand’s and Miller’s back problems.
Add to that list Emerson and Deadmarsh coming to the Kings with a history of concussion problems, defenseman Brent Sopel had knee problems stemming from his time with the New York Islanders, Palffy had an old shoulder injury that came back to haunt him in 2003-04, causing him to miss the last 42 games of the regular season—the Kings inherited a significant number of injuries from years past.
“We’ve analyzed that over and over and over again,” said Demers. “I’d have to look at the records, but we positively inherited a lot of the concussions. There’s definitely an explanation for a lot of it.”
“Adam Deadmarsh, he had a history,” added Demers. “You bring him in, he’s a great player, but you take a chance. It didn’t work out.”
Given the varying degrees and the different kinds of injuries during those seasons, was there anything that anyone could put a finger on as a cause for the massive number of injuries?
“We had a string of bad luck,” Demers lamented. “I was asked on the carpet, to come up with something. Tell us something explaining what’s going on here.”
“We definitely inherited some concussions, some back problems,” Demers added. “We might’ve had some over-training going on, which we had to adjust. Maybe we were working out too much, or [they used] the wrong technique. Little things like that.”
“Anything under 200 man-games lost is good. My first year with the Kings, we had 43 man-games lost, and I was walking around with my chest puffed out. The next year, it went up to 108, just like that. I’m not saying that the guys are wusses now. I’m just saying that maybe we should’ve taken a closer look at some of our injuries.”
Although the Kings qualified for the playoffs in 2001-02, they would not earn an invitation to the post-season party again until the 2009-10 season.
In other words, the Kings were suffering through some very lean times, and that may have played a role in the staggering number of injuries.
“If there’s no one hurt, a lot of times, no one gets hurt,” Demers explained. “When a team’s not winning, guys get off the bandwagon. It’s human nature.”
“I talked to a guy in Montreal, [retired long-time Montreal Canadiens trainer/equipment manage] Eddy Palchak [an equipment manager honoree in the Hockey Hall of Fame],” said Demers. “Years and years ago, I talked about that. I wasn’t complaining, but just saying how difficult it is when things aren’t going well, from our standpoint.”
“We don’t run the team, obviously, but we have a lot of input as to what goes on inside the locker room and the training room,” added Demers. “I was saying how difficult it was, and Montreal has been on the other end of the spectrum with great success over a lot of years. He said that it’s even harder when you’re on top. But I think that when things aren’t going well, you have a lot more complaints. Injuries seem to snowball when things aren’t going well. One guy’s got a concussion, then another guy—’my head doesn’t feel right,’ or, ‘he’s off, I might as well take off.’”
“That kind of stuff—we’re not psychologists, but when things don’t go right, not everyone has a smile on their face, and it makes things more difficult, as far as what’s going on in the locker room [is concerned].”
To put things in perspective, since the 2005-06 season, the Kings have lost a total of 889 man-games to injury, losing 181 in 2006-07, 193 in 2007-08, 153 in 2008-09, 190 in 2009-10, and 172 in 2010-11.
Protecting The Investment
Especially compared to the 1970’s and even the 1980’s, but even when compared to the early 2000’s, NHL teams now invest more time, effort, resources and money towards the health and conditioning of their players, as well as placing greater emphasis on preventing injuries.
In the earlier days, it was not uncommon to see players head right back out onto the ice after suffering an injury that would result in a player being taken out of a game today.
“Now we’re really protecting our players,” Demers noted. “Players would play with a broken ankle, and the player would know, but no one else would. We’d just wrap him up.”
“In Sports Illustrated, Michael Farber wrote, in the 70’s, about [former Kings defenseman] Bob Murdoch,” Demers added. “We had an injury log that we kept [written in pencil], until we started using computers, from 1969. Bob Murdoch—we listed him with a broken nose, lacerations, sick, or all these different things, and what I did for him. It took up three pages. Down at the bottom, Michael Farber wrote, ‘never missed a game.’”
“You get guys like Bob Murdoch, who had broken noses, broken fingers, torn meniscus, torn MCL, and he didn’t miss any time. You can’t really put your finger on it.”
One of the big differences is that the players are protected from themselves now.
“Guys were banged up, but maybe we protect the investment a little more now,” said Demers. “I know for sure the investment is protected more in terms of head trauma. We’re just that much more schooled on that now.”
“We protect the player from himself,” added Demers. “He doesn’t have the chance to say, ‘I’m OK now.’ It’s not like you hold up two fingers and say, ‘how many fingers,’ and let him go play. Now, he’s tested, as far as concussions go. He comes into training camp, and a neuropsychologist comes in to do a baseline neuropsychological test on him. Those records are kept. When he has a concussion, he does a test within 24 hours to see if he’s at his baseline, and, if he’s not, he’s not allowed to play, no matter how good he says he feels.”
Coaches often placed heavy pressure on players to tough out injuries, and this was part of the culture in the NHL throughout most of its history. But now, they are no longer involved in such decisions.
“[Early in Demers’ career], a player would tell me, ‘I don’t feel good,’ and I’d go the coach and tell him the player doesn’t feel right,” Demers explained.” The coach would go to the player and ask, ‘how do you feel?’ The player would say ‘good.’ The coach then comes back to me and says, ‘he feels good.’”
“Those days are over now,” Demers elaborated. “The coaches are out of the loop, and the doctors control when the player returns to the lineup. That’s protecting the player from himself. The guys are so tough, and so unassuming on their injuries. They’ll play through unbelievable pain.”
Concussions suffered by NHL players have been in the spotlight in recent years, but much of that could be due to the heavy attention the league has placed on what to do about them, compared to years past, when a player would take a heavy hit to the head, but would skate right back out onto the ice for his next shift, even though it was clear that he got his bell rung.
Demers noted that a player who has suffered a concussion may not show symptoms immediately.
“Symptoms might not come right away,” he explained. “They might not come until post-game, they could start with feeling sick, headache, numbness or tingling. There could be various symptoms. There are signs that we look at immediately, but they might not present themselves until an hour after the game, or the next morning.”
“We have the largest concussion study going on in all of North America, and, I’m assuming, the world, the NHL does,” he elaborated. “There might be a little less concussions now. Maybe the league’s taking a little better look at hits to the head, or maybe players are respecting each other a little more. Who knows, but it doesn’t seem like they’re in the forefront as they had been. They’re still out there, though.”
Changes to players equipment has also had an impact on injuries.
“We’re looking at the mechanics of our injuries all the time, like the space between the glove and the elbow pad,” said Demers. “It used to be open. In recent years, it was open. Now it’s closing back up again. If you look at [former Kings superstar center] Marcel Dionne’s gloves, they’re 16-inch gloves. They’re real long. They go all the way up his arm. Didn’t keep him from scoring fifty goals [in a season].”
“I remember one year when we had three broken wrists,” added Demers. “[Former Kings right wing] Dave Taylor, [former Kings defenseman] Peter Helander and another guy, [all] within a short period of time. Everybody was blaming the gloves.”
First the gloves, and then the pants.
“Some guys pull their pants up high, and there’s a space between their shin pad and their pants,” Demers noted. “They’re vulnerable to get cut, or hit with a shot. That’s the way some guys wore their pants. They wear them lower now.”
“Some guys had a big slit in the back of their pants, to allow more movement,” Demers added. “That’s OK, but the pads that are in the front shift to the side, and then there’s no padding on the side—you need that flexibility on the side when you bend your leg. Because they’re so loose, they move, and then you get a charley horse.”
“We’re looking at equipment constantly. Ankle guards, the space between your boot and your shin pad.”
Of course, as equipment evolved, trainers had to adjust as well.
“I didn’t know what we were going to do when helmets first came along,” Demers reminisced. “We had bags that only fit their gear. Two pairs of skates, elbow pads, shoulder pads, gloves, pants, socks, underwear. That’s it.”
“The bags were tight, and we packed them tight,” Demers added. “When helmets came along, we could hardly fit them in. We had to buy new bags. But look at the injuries they’ve prevented.”
Demers had one more thing about helmets, something that still applies today, and not just at the NHL level.
“That’s another thing, as far as protection goes, that we’re trying to stress—the helmet strap,” he emphasized. “You see helmets falling off all the time. The chin strap is too loose.”
“Guys are always pulling on their chin strap,” he lamented. “It hangs down, and if you can put two fingers in there, as soon as you fall on your butt, your helmet’s going to come off, and you’re not going to have that protection that you need.”
“Those are all little things that the public wouldn’t think about, but that’s on our mind, constantly, as care providers.”
Trainers: Hockey’s Version Of The Grim Reaper
As hockey trainers go, and as detailed in earlier stories in this series, Demers was a pioneer in his field.
Early on, he kept detailed records of injuries and illnesses. At the time, few NHL trainers kept such records.
“Records were kept, injury reports were filled out,” he explained. “[I kept] a daily log of everything that went on. I don’t think many teams did that. It was, for me, a convenient way to [keep] up to speed on a guy every day.”
“I’d write down stuff for the coaches, and, after I finished that, I’d throw that paper in my bag,” he elaborated. “After the post-game reports that I had to give to the coach, I’d take [the contents of that paper] and write it in my book.”
These days, such records are routine for all NHL teams. The big difference is that, unlike the 1970’s, when Demers started, trainers now have the advantage of being able to use today’s technology.
“[Today], a lot of that stuff is done electronically, although you do go into the coaches room,” said Demers.
Often times, when he did go into the coaches room, Demers may as well have been carrying a sickle and wearing a black hood and cloak.
“You’re the Grim Reaper coming in, or Mort the Mortician,” he noted. “You’re the bearer of bad news all the time. You never have good news when you walk into the coaches room before practice or after a game. That’s just the way it is.”
“They know the commitment that we make, especially the coaches,” added Demers. “But it’s frustrating for them, if they have to take a guy out. They got their lines set, so it’s not just one guy. They’ve got to shuffle all the lines to make the combinations right for them.”
Having to be the bearer of bad news all the time is definitely not easy.
“It’s difficult, you have to brace yourself for it,” Demers noted. “A lot of times, you want to give some rationale why. But I talked to [former Kings forward and head coach] Mike Murphy about that after he was coaching here. He thinks it’s best not to give rationale.”
“I talked to him about this after he was gone from here, not in recent years,” Demers added. “He says, go in, look the guy in the eye, tell him this guy can’t play, this guy—he can practice, but he’s not ready to play yet, this guy can’t practice with the team, but can skate on his own, this guy can’t be on the ice at all, he needs another few days, this guy’s sick at home.”
“Mike Murphy said to look [the coach] in the eye, give him the report, and walk out. A lot of times, you try to give rationale, and you begin to ramble too much.”
Coaches and general managers were sometimes skeptical about the condition of their injured players.
“‘Has he been to the doctor?’ That’s the question they ask you,” said Demers. “We’re on top of it. So they want everyone to go to the doctor. In the past, they thought maybe the guy was just sleeping in, or something. He calls in and says, ‘I’m sick.’ Well, we want him to go to the doctor.”
“When you can’t play, you can’t play,” added Demers. “[But sometimes], a coach would say, ‘well, I want him back for treatment tonight.’ Then, who has to come? We do. The guy doesn’t need another treatment. We already treated him twice today.”
“‘Yeah, I want him here at 2:00, I want him here at 4:00, and I want him here at 8:00.’ That’s what the coach would tell you, so who has to miss the kids’ skating party, Boy Scouts, a kid’s hockey game? The trainers do. That’s happened over and over again, bringing players back. It’s accountability.”
But sometimes, Demers would have something up his sleeve.
“We had [former Kings goaltender Gary ‘Cobra’ Simmons] who played years ago,” Demers noted. “George Maguire was the general manager, and he wanted him doing thirty miles on the stationary bike. Back then, those bikes had a belt and a gauge on them with a speedometer.”
“We wheeled the bike in the engine room—fitness was not [Simmons’] top priority,” Demers added. “We got the engineer and took the speedometer cable out. We put a drill on it, and, every day, we’d run that thing up thirty miles. [Gary] would sit in the engine room with his feet up on the table. We’d still treat him, twice a day. But he sat in the engine room with Scotty, the engineer.”
Like many years in their history, the Kings were simply dreadful for the last handful of seasons of Demers’ career with the Kings. In April 2006, ownership decided to clean house, which included the hiring of a new general manager, Dean Lombardi. He quickly brought in a new training staff, with Demers being “…retained at a lesser role.” He eventually retired, which became somewhat controversial, as accusations that Demers was being blamed for those injury-filled seasons, and was demoted or fired as a result, flew across discussion forums on the World Wide Web. Part eleven of this series will examine the circumstances regarding his departure from the Kings training room and the controversy surrounding it.
KEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers (left) is shown here treating forward Ian Laperriere. Photo: Los Angeles Kings
SECOND PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings retired head athletic trainer Pete Demers (rear) behind the bench on October 9, 2002. Foreground from left: Adam Deadmarsh, Ziggy Palffy, Craig Johnson. Photo: Demers Family Collection.
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