CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Penguins goaltender Matt Murray brought up teammate Tom Kuhnhackl’s name, without prompting and without knowing that Pittsburgh Hockey Now had spoken with him moments earlier. The topic was pain, pain management and the welts and bruises that come with playing NHL hockey.
“Guys like Tommy Kuhnhackl are covered in bruises all the time,” Murray said. “He kind of wears it like a badge. He wears it really proudly. That shows you how much he cares to win. He embraces that role. He loves to block shots.”
And that’s during the regular season. It’s nearly playoff time, when NHL players go into hyperdrive as it pertains to digging extra deep to win. That includes sacrificing their bodies.
Not that they waltz through the regular season unscathed. In addition to some of the injuries that are obvious and lead to time out of the lineup, there are all sorts of things that happen every game that, well, hurt. Sometimes a lot.
Kuhnhackl, a fourth-liner who plays a defensive, physical style, admits to what Murray dubbed his badges of honor.
“Constantly,” he said of bruises. “It’s not just from blocking shots. It’s battles. When you go in front of the net, you get hit and your shoulder bruises or you get cross-checked in the arm. There’s always a bump or a bruise. I feel like that’s normal for us hockey players.”
With a game Sunday against the rival Philadelphia Flyers, bruises could be prominently on the menu.
Many of Kuhnhackl’s blocked shots come when he is killing penalties. He doesn’t lead the Penguins in that category – he ranks seventh with 45 blocks — but if you watch the games, it seems as if a healthy percentage of them are point-blank and leave Kuhnhackl hobbled and in pain, even though it rarely leads to him leaving the game.
He’s matter of fact about that.
“At the end of the day, you get hit with rubber that accelerates pretty quickly. It’s only rubber, but it actually hurts a little bit,” he said, allowing a smile because of his understatement. “I feel like the more you do it, the more you get hit in the same spots, it hardens up, and after a while it still hurts, but the pain goes away after a couple of minutes. So you just try to get your leg moving, keep it moving so it doesn’t tighten up.”
D as in Dinged Up
Because they are the ones clogging lanes and often playing closest to their goalie, defensemen usually lead the way with blocked shots. For the Penguins, Brian Dumoulin has the most, 124.
“It definitely stings,” said Dumoulin, who figures most Penguins players are wearing welts and bruises more often than not.
“Some are worse than others. Some you think are going to be worse, but they’re not. It all depends on the situation and the guy. You try to shake it off and try to come back. But it definitely is something that lingers, and you can feel it.”
For those who scoff and point to the protective equipment hockey players wear, know this: Those missile-like pucks sometimes seem to have eyes for finding areas that aren’t hidden behind pads.
“It’s crazy,” Dumoulin said. “When you look at us without a jersey on, there’s plenty of holes where if you weren’t wearing a shirt or pants you could see skin. We’re definitely exposed in a lot of places that you don’t really realize because we have jerseys on, shin pads, socks. When you get hit with that puck and it’s in the back of the leg (for instance), those are the ones that really hurt. When you get those, it’s just flesh, so it’s not necessarily a broken bone; it’s just pain and stinging and bruising.”
Kuhnhackl is amazed at how often those vulnerable areas get zinged when he blocks a shot or gets cross-checked or driven into the boards. And that’s despite some precautions he takes such as wearing skate guards in games and adding some extra padding behind his shin and knee pads, and around his ankles.
“Oh, my … yes!” he said. “I thought with all this gear we’re wearing that you’re pretty well protected, but it’s actually the exact opposite. There’s a lot of holes, especially when you turn sideways to cover up more space. It opens up other places that are more vulnerable to get hit.”
Penguins Goalies Not Immune
Murray, as a goalie, is one of the most protected players on the ice, with a full mask, big leg pads, heavy skate guards, a blocker and a glove in addition to the standard upper body armor.
That doesn’t mean goaltenders are immune to pain when they make saves – and we aren’t talking about the kind of rocket to the mask that has left Murray and other goalies with concussions.
“You’ll get the odd one that might catch you in a weird spot,” Murray said. “There’s certain spots – your elbow or your collarbone – where there’s not as much padding. You might get a stinger now and then. But it’s not like these guys (blocking shots) when they go down, one knee. A lot of times they’re taking it right on skin, like just above the knee, the upper part of their legs. They have crazy bruises the next day.
“For us (goalies), it’s not as bad. You might get a little stinger here or there, but nowhere near what these guys do.”
By “stinger,” Murray means something that will leave a deep bruise, not necessarily a puck that causes numbness or a shock to the nervous system.
For Murray, practices are worse than games. Players don’t block shots regularly – “I feel like in practice you’re kind of trying to get out of the way, but in the game I want to be in the way as much as I can,” Kuhnhackl said — and shooters are taking aim from short range and high-percentage spots.
As you might expect given hockey players’ reputation for pain tolerance, toughing it out is the most common remedy, with ice being some players’ best friend.
Kuhnhackl said he sometimes uses ice bags between periods and even on the bench during games. He also dunks himself in an ice bath occasionally. The aim is to numb the bruised areas.
“Sometimes, it’s the quickest solution,” he said.
For anyone who might think Kuhnhackl is complaining about the welts, PHN asked him if he would trade them for anything.
“No,” he said quickly. “Absolutely not.”