ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Hits to the head remain the greatest present and future danger for professional hockey players.
But don’t forget about the feet.
Each NHL season, dozens of games are lost by players who take a slap shot to the skate. The lucky player gets away with a bruise, while others limp off with broken bones. There are foot protectors available, typically made out of super-strong plastics like carbon fiber or even Kevlar. They vary in size, ranging from designs that encase the entire skate to those that only cover the top.
The problem? Many players don’t want to wear them, part of the time-worn conflict between safety and toughness, stubbornness and style. Foot protectors aren’t required, so teams can’t force them on.
“Then again, if you get a slap shot off your foot, you don’t break your foot,” Minnesota defenseman Marco Scandella said. “So, pros and cons to everything. It’s extra equipment, you know? Some guys don’t like wearing extra stuff.”
Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski is among them.
“You don’t notice them 95 percent of the time. But the one time that you go to turn and it catches, or someone’s stick gets caught in it, that could be a problem,” he said.
Using the body as a blocker is common in hockey, with players sprawling to keep the puck from getting to the net or another player. Columbus coach Todd Richards said the league wants to protect its players and the foot devices can help.
Zach Parise, the Wild’s leading scorer at the time, took a puck off his foot Nov. 25. He sat out one game and returned for the next, but over 12 games of playing through the pain he had only four goals and one assist. Then Parise was shut down. He missed 14 more games.
While Parise was recovering, defenseman Jared Spurgeon was hurt the same way Jan. 2 and has been out since. Captain Mikko Koivu broke his ankle Jan. 4, also by a speeding puck. He’s expected back soon, but last Thursday was his 12th straight absence.
None of those players was wearing foot protectors at the time. General manager Chuck Fletcher has been encouraging the Wild to use them, even before this fluky rash of foot injuries, but he understands the hesitation. The Wild recently had players fitted for custom models that are designed to be more comfortable.
“There’s a physical part of this, but there’s also a psychological part. You don’t want a player going out there feeling like he’s not 100 percent,” Fletcher said.
One complaint about standard foot protectors is they can cause the skate to catch on the ice during sharp turns. Another problem is the unpredictability of the puck.
“It explodes off of them,” Scandella said. “So if you block a shot, you don’t know. You try to keep the puck in on the blue line, and it hits it, I’m telling you, it’s wild. At least the regular ones. They have bubbles. So when it compresses the bubble, it shoots off like harder than the shot came in.”
Brenden Dillon, who leads the Stars in blocked shots, wears foot protectors. His cover three-quarters of the skate, and he said they don’t hinder his movement.