- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2013

NEW YORK — Brooks Laich doesn’t know how to handle this. The Washington Capitals have played 15 games and a groin injury has kept Laich out of all of them.

“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.”

“It’s a horrible experience to deal with a groin injury like that,” the veteran defenseman said. “And the worst part about it is you never really know how bad it is. Just a little tweak could keep you out for a really long time. It’s beyond frustrating.”

Adam Oates twice in his career suffered abdominal tears, which can result from groin injuries, so he knows how difficult it can be.

“It was very frustrating because you didn’t feel like it was healing and all of a sudden one day it was fine,” the Caps’ coach said last week. “There was no line that it went down.”

Laich knows that. He has tried setting return dates in his mind numerous times and each one came and went. Lesson learned.

“I think if you do that and you don’t hit it, you go through unnecessary frustration,” Laich said. “So I’m trying to just be positive every day and make each day a good day rather than circling something and hoping to get there or forcing something to try and get there when it’s not right.”

When Oates named his alternate captains to go along with Alex Ovechkin, Laich made the cut with Green and Nicklas Backstrom. He called those players the “core group.”

But it’s not easy to lead from the press box.

“I’m sure it’s hard,” Oates said. “Everybody wants to play and you don’t want to be on the outside. And you try and be professional about it and a good guy about it. But at the end of the day, you want to play.”

At this point, it seems Laich wants that more than anything in the hockey world. Skating during the day is all well and good, but there’s a big difference between practicing and playing in real, live games.

“It’s kind of that whole mentality of gearing up for the game and being part of that game-day routine,” Halpern said. “It’s a different feeling when you’re actually part of it and you’re in that room versus sitting out.”

Laich has had to watch the Caps’ ups and downs from afar. Studying what he can and trying to get a grasp of Oates’ systems keeps him busy, but the different vantage point is tough to take.

“It’s not the same as being in the battle and in the fight with the guys,” Laich said. “It’s certainly a view that I really don’t like to experience.”

The worst part is it’s uncertain how long Laich will have to experience the strain of being out of the lineup. The Caps just have to hope that the empty feeling doesn’t drive Laich to try to come back too early.

Because if he does that, Laich really will be a ghost and this will be a lost season.