- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Greg Smith knows pain. Broken bones. Torn muscles. Missing teeth. As the head trainer for the Washington Capitals, he's an authority on all things ouch. He's even had his jaw fractured by a stray puck.
Yet when it comes to true agony, there's one part of his job that stands out.
"The paperwork," Smith said. "You've got players' individual insurance policies, team insurance, worker's comp, plus detailed medical records on every injury and everything I do with a guy. I could sit here all day and go through stacks of it."
Thanks to Smith and his staff, however, those stacks are smaller than ever. Despite a physical, grinding style of play, the Capitals lost just 147 man-games to injury this season well below the annual league average of 250 and one of the main reasons the club captured its second consecutive Southeastern Division title.
Two seasons ago, Washington set an unofficial NHL record by losing 511 man-games to injury. "[Greg's] record has been excellent here," said George McPhee, the Caps' general manager. "Staying healthy is critical for any success that you may have. You can compete but you can't win in this league if you have a lot of injuries."
As the Caps wade into the war of attrition that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs, beginning with a first-round home game against Pittsburgh on Thursday night, it's up to the club's medical support staff to keep the team in working condition. And that begins with Smith.
Far more than a mere ankle taper, he's an administrator, a masseur, a psychologist, a paramedic and a physical therapist. Not to mention a potential lifesaver.
In 1989, Buffalo goalkeeper Clint Malarchuk suffered a ghastly six-inch, in-game skate cut to his neck. Malarchuk bled profusely until trainer Jim Pizzutelli rushed onto the ice and applied pressure to his jugular vein, plugging what could have been a fatal injury.
"Smitty's part friend, part doctor," Washington center Adam Oates said. "You look at him as a savior. Most of the time, fans only see him when guys get cut. But it's really the other injuries and the other things that count."
Indeed, most of Smith's work occurs in private. And much of it takes place before the Caps ever lace up their skates.
Start with injury prevention: With the help of strength and conditioning coach Frank Costello, Smith has the team perform a regular, hockey-specific stretching and exercise regimen designed to toughen injury-prone areas like the stomach and groin.
Following a similar program, Anaheim lost just 98 man-games to injury during the 1998-99 season, an unofficial NHL low since the league adopted an 82-game schedule. Better still, injury-prone star forward Paul Kariya played the entire season without missing a game, a feat he had accomplished just once in his previous four seasons.
The Mighty Ducks' trainer that season? Smith.
"Frank and Smitty do a great job of keeping up with the latest stretches and exercises," Caps forward Steve Konowalchuk said. "I think that's really cut down on injuries."
Of course, no amount of training can eliminate injuries completely especially in hockey, a game that centers around large, heavily armored men hitting each other at extremely high speeds. And when a player goes down, it's up to Smith to get him back on the ice as quickly as possible.
Sometimes, that means building custom equipment. When a Caps defenseman sprained his wrist last season, Smith jerry-rigged a special brace that allowed him to stay in the lineup.
In other cases, it means helping an injured player through the painful, sometimes frustrating grind of rehabilitation, a process that's as much psychological as medical.
"It's a mental game," Smith said. "It takes time to figure out what makes guys tick, how far I can push them, how I can make them do what they need to do. There's times where I think, 'What the heck is this guy doing? He should have been back on the ice three weeks ago.' And there's times when I have to say, 'You can't play. I know you want to, but you can't.' "
The latter, Smith said, is far more common. Hockey players generally prize toughness the way Wall Street prizes interest rate cuts.
"The hardest part is figuring out when a guy can go back onto the ice," Smith said. "I've had guys get fractured hands, fractured feet things that don't need a cast because they're stable and guys play right through the pain.
Smith recalls an early season game in which Ulf Dahlen suffered a severe cut to his lip during his first shift, received more than 40 stitches in the locker room and returned to the ice in the third period.
"It took almost an hour to suture him up, and he came back to play," Smith said. "That's not a rare occurrence."
Rarer still would be Smith discussing an injury even an old one like Dahlen's at any length. NHL trainers are notoriously tight-lipped and with good reason: Ailments are inviting targets for opposing pokes, bumps and checks.
"I only report to [coach] Ron [Wilson] and George [McPhee]," Smith said. "And they give me a tremendous amount of room. All they want to know is who's hurt to the point where they can't play. They let the doctors and the trainers do our jobs, and they don't second-guess us."
That trust, Smith said, helps him establish a better relationship with the players in his care. Moreover, it helps the Caps avoid the ugly player-management spats that can flare up in the wake of injury, such as Philadelphia center Eric Lindros' current estrangement from the Flyers, a situation brought on largely by conflicting medical opinions between team and private doctors.
"It's better that way you don't have the media and all that other stuff involved," Smith said. "Look what happened with the whole Lindros thing. It's hard enough to get a guy healthy without the added pressure."
A graduate of Bowie High School, Smith began his career as a Caps intern in 1995. After a stint with the Baltimore Bandits of the American Hockey League, he became Anaheim's trainer at the start of the 1997-98 season. He also served as the trainer for Team USA in the 1998 world championships.
Though Smith didn't work with Wilson in Anaheim Wilson left the Mighty Ducks following the 1996-97 season the Caps had Smith pegged after former trainer Stan Wong left Washington in 1999.
"We noticed the job [Smith] had done [in Anaheim]," Wilson said. "I had remained fairly close with Paul Kariya and the other trainers there, and they gave Smitty full credit."
Smith prefers to credit his support staff. In addition to Smith and Costello, there's team physician Ben Shaffer, assistant trainer Tim Clark, massage therapist Curt Millar, team internist Richard Feldman, nutritionist Tom Fox, ophthalmologist Michael Herr, dentist Howard Salob and a three-man equipment staff.
"There's no way I could do it all myself," Smith said. "It's a team effort. It used to be that there was only two guys, a trainer and an equipment guy. Now you've got an equipment guy and assistant equipment guy, an assistant to the assistant equipment guy, plus my whole staff."
That said, the extra help doesn't necessarily make his job easier. The hours are long up to 19 a day during a road trip and the travel is extensive.
Moreover, there are some unique occupational hazards: Former NHL trainer Skip Thayer a mentor of Smith's needed major surgery on both hands after 28 years of taping joints and giving massages. And longtime Los Angeles trainer Pete Demers once suffered three broken ribs after getting hit by a puck.
Smith can relate. During his last season in Anaheim, a first-period shot by now-retired Fredrick Olesson hit him square in the face.
"The worst thing is I saw the puck coming, so I put my hands up," Smith said. "But the guy in front of me threw up his hands. He had black gloves on, and I thought that was the puck. So I dropped my hands, and it smoked me.
"Craig Hartsburg [Anaheim's coach] came over and asked, 'Are you all right? You've got a dent in your face.' "
Smith finished the game, had surgery the next day and was back on the Mighty Ducks' bench the following night.
"It hurt, but I ask the players to do their job when they're not feeling good," Smith said. "And I wouldn't ask them to do anything I wouldn't do."
Except, perhaps, for the paperwork.
"Sometimes I can't stand it," he said. "I didn't become a trainer to push paper all day. But then a guy comes to you at the end of the day and says thanks. Or a guy comes back off an injury and scores a goal, makes a great save or lays a big hit on someone. That's the most gratifying part of the job. That's what I live for."

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