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“It’s been the hardest thing I think I’ve ever gone through in my hockey career,” he said solemnly.
The 29-year-old forward is as stubborn as a mule, in the most positive definition of that phrase. Laich doesn’t care to miss practices, let alone games. He has never missed this many games in a row during his NHL career.
It’s clear that being out of the locker room at game time is wearing on him, even more so than dealing with the physical pain.
“The toughest part is just missing playing games and even missing practice,” Laich said. “It’s the passion in my life to play hockey, and when that gets taken away from you it’s really tough to take and really frustrating. You try and do your best to get back as quick as you can, and sometimes there’s things that are out of your control. And sometimes time is your enemy, too.”
Time is ticking away as the Caps are almost a third of the way through this shortened season. Since he began skating with teammates Jan. 31, Laich has been able to spend some time in the locker room with the guys, but that’s not enough. Dressed in a suit that doesn’t bear the No. 21 or Caps logo, Laich is unable to contribute in any meaningful way.
Ex-Caps teammate and current New York Rangers forward Jeff Halpern can empathize because of two knee injuries suffered earlier in his career.
“You feel like a ghost. You feel like you’re not part of the team and you’re doing your own thing,” Halpern said. “People try and make an effort and you try to make an effort to kind of make that better, but it’s nothing like being in that lineup every day and being amongst the guys. When you’re injured or if you’re a healthy scratch or whatever it is, it’s an empty feeling.”
The empty feeling is obvious in Laich’s expressions and body language. Before the past few days he was often aloof, unwilling to talk to reporters about an injury he couldn’t really say much about.
It’s a groin injury, even if Laich only alludes to it and never uses the “G” word. And it’s nothing like a knee sprain, which he played through last year, or a broken foot, which he played through during the 2009 playoffs.
“A lot of those are just about handling the pain, but you are still able to be effective if you can control the pain. The injury that I currently have is a little different than that,” Laich said. “If I was on the ice, I wouldn’t be effective for our team; I wouldn’t be able to help our team win. And I would never go out on the ice if I was going to be detrimental to our team.”
Laich knows he’d be doing a “disservice” to his teammates by making his season debut before he’s fully healthy. It’s a realization that is easy to accept but hard to rationalize.
“There are some things that are out of my control,” he said. “It’s not an injury that questions how tough you are.”
No one’s questioning Laich’s toughness, just like no one was questioning Tom Poti’s toughness or Mike Green’s toughness as those players battled the same problem in recent years.
Poti called it a “very humbling injury.”
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