It was an overtime win over the hated Toronto Maple Leafs — but it came without the usual dose of joy here in Hab-land.
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Missing from Saturday’s celebration was the little guy with the thousand-kilowatt smile and the million-dollar shot. Cole Caufield, the most dangerous sniper to wear the CH since Stéphane Richer was waiting for Jupiter to align with Mars, was gone for the season.
Caufield is now waiting for surgery on his right shoulder. When the announcement was made Saturday morning, the second-year star joined an injury list that is longer than Hal Gill’s stick. The Canadiens are now down 11 players, including No. 1 draft pick Juraj Slafkovsky, emerging top-pairing defenceman Kaiden Guhle, one-time all-universe goaltender Carey Price and reclamation projects Jonathan Drouin and Sean Monahan.
It’s reaching the point where if you ain’t injured, you ain’t a Hab.
But it was the loss of Caufield that roiled the waters. Caufield’s quest for 40 goals or more was the biggest single reason to watch almost three more months of hockey. He’s so much fun to watch that even a victory over the Leafs feels like it was filmed in black and white without him.
Worse, the handling of his injury has brought the first serious criticism of the current regime since Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes replaced Marc Bergevin at the helm. Why was Caufield allowed to play on through multiple games and practices? Why didn’t the medical staff shut him down immediately?
Sportsnet’s Eric Engels, who isn’t one to rip the club as a knee-jerk reflex, scorched the medical staff for not shutting him down immediately. “Why their medical staff would allow him to (play with this injury) in a season in which results have been stated as secondary to development,” Engels wrote, “is absolutely mindboggling.”
Even with the constant input from Caufield’s agent, Pat Brisson, and input from doctors outside the organization, the decision makes no sense. “It’s been a progressive injury the past few weeks,” Brisson told Engels, “and every time he steps on the ice, there’s a chance it could get worse, and then it could get more complicated in surgery.”
As Engels pointed out, it’s one thing for the organization to let veterans Shea Weber and Carey Price play through the Stanley Cup run in 2021 even with their careers at risk. Both knew what was at stake, both wanted one last shot at a ring and both are suffering the consequences.
But a young man with his career ahead of him, in a season with nothing at stake beyond a high draft pick? It makes no sense.
Inevitably, the handling of Caufield’s injury — with others to Sean Monahan, Mike Matheson, Brendan Gallagher — will bring increased scrutiny of the medical staff and even, fairly or unfairly, criticism of GM Kent Hughes. (The news of Caufield’s injury broke on the same day as the birthdays of Hughes and Dach.)
The medical staff will bear most of the heat, but it must be said: Hockey players will play through Hades and high water. Always have, always will. NBA-style “load management,” pioneered by Kawhi Leonard and now common procedure league-wide, is not yet a thing in the NHL. Players like Weber, Price, Monahan and Gallagher have to be prevented from destroying their bodies through sheer determination to be on the ice — and teams are going to have to be more proactive to rein them in.
We laugh at hockey players of the Summit Series era who turned up at training camp carrying an extra 10 pounds of beer weight and played themselves into shape — but anecdotally, they seemed to get injured less often. Did they know something we’ve forgotten?
Could it be that the body needs rest more than it needs training in the off-season? Is a summer spent swimming, loafing and playing a little softball more beneficial than performing ever more arduous workout drills in a smelly gym?
Or does it start younger, with 12-year-olds training for hockey year-round instead of developing their abilities playing soccer, baseball, pickup basketball and volleyball?
If Gallagher takes a shot on the hand or Monahan catches one on the foot, no level of conditioning is going to make a difference. Same with concussions. But what about the joint injuries that are the most common in every sport — shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles? Or the muscle tears? Are the most finely tuned athletes (like the Mercedes and BMWs you often see waiting for roadside assistance) most likely to break down?
The problem isn’t unique to the Canadiens. It encompasses most elite-level sports, and a solution will require a global effort.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens as an organization need to err on the side of caution in their approach to player injuries.
Heroes: Cole Caufield, Gino Odjick, Rem Pitlick, Michael Pezzetta, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Josh Anderson, Pat Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Elena Rybakina, Andy Murray &&&& last but not least, Sam Montembeault.
Zeros: Ivan Provorov, Tony Dungy, Sandro Grande, Novak Djokovic, FanDuel, BetMGM, Baruch College volleyball legend George Santos, Claude Brochu, David Samson, Jerry Jones &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.
Now and forever.
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