BOSTON – Marian Hossa is one of the Chicago Blackhawks’ top scorers, with three game-winning goals already this postseason.
And then, suddenly, he wasn’t in the lineup for a team that needed all the scoring it can get.
Hossa’s surprise scratch from Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals – and the one-word explanation, “upper,” for the part of his body that was injured – is part of a long-running cat-and-mouse game NHL teams play on the theory that any information about injuries is a competitive disadvantage.
“I think that’s self-explanatory,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, declining to explain why he declined to explain the secrecy surrounding Hossa’s injury.
Tuukka Rask stopped 28 shots from the depleted Blackhawks to help the Bruins win 2-0 Monday night and move two wins from their second Stanley Cup title in three seasons. Game 4 is tonight in Boston before the series returns to Chicago for a fifth game.
Hossa is expected to play in Game 4, Quenneville allowed, but only after making clear that “I’m not going to get exactly what the injury is or where it occurred.”
“It’s sort of a secret society in the hockey world and in the injury world,” Blackhawks forward Dave Bolland said. “You don’t want other teams having any injury information at all.”
Asked if he had seen Hossa or had a chance to talk to him, Bolland said, “I don’t know.”
You don’t know if you’ve seen him or talked to him?
“I don’t know if I’ve seen him,” Bolland repeated with a sly smile.
Hossa’s mysterious injury may have been a turning point in Game 3, but it is hardly unusual in the secretive world of hockey injuries. Players and coaches say they just don’t talk about what’s hurting, partly because they don’t want to seem weak in a sport where they hit each other for a living.
But mostly, they don’t want let the other team know where to aim.
“If I’m going out to battle and I have an injury to any part of my body, I don’t want the other side to know what it is,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton said.
Injury information also can help the opponent strategize. Quenneville was so concerned about giving the Bruins advance notice of even a few minutes that he didn’t let substitute Ben Smith skate in the warmup even though there was a chance he would need to play.
“I just didn’t want to tip our hand that there’s something going on,” the coach said.
“Ben was ready. I knew he was doing everything,” Quenneville said. “We were hopeful that Hoss was playing, and Ben was doing everything to get ready. He was ready.”
“I’m still surprised,” Thornton said. “I don’t know what happened to him.”
No hard feelings, Bruins coach Claude Julien said. After all, he would do – and has done – the same thing.
“I respect that from other teams. When you’re playing against each other, you know exactly where everybody is coming from,” Julien said.
“There’s times where you have to protect your players, and I understand it. I know it’s frustrating for you guys as media. You’re trying to share that information. The most important thing for us, we can take the heat for that, is protecting your players.”
So, how to tell if an injury is minor?
When a team actually admits it exists.
“I’ll share one with you: Yesterday in a warmup, Zdeno Chara fell down, got a cut over the eye,” Julien said, making light of the mishap in the way that only a coach two wins from an NHL title will do. “I’ll let you know about that. That’s not a hidden injury.
“If it’s something that doesn’t put your player in danger, I don’t see why you shouldn’t talk about it,” he said.
Players say they don’t have to be told not to discuss injuries; it’s as much a part of the culture as Canadian accents and playoff beards. Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said he doesn’t remember when he first learned the subject was off-limits, but it was long before he reached the NHL.
And hockey players are not alone.
“It’s not just here,” Thornton said. “I don’t think Bill Belichick is (listing) all the injuries they have, either.”
But even the notoriously uncommunicative New England Patriots coach is required by NFL rules to say what body part is injured. NHL coaches have to narrow it only to “upper body” or “lower body,” which means a player with a concussion and one with a broken finger would have the same diagnosis.
During the playoffs, information is even scarcer.
“It’s that time of year where everybody’s kind of battling. I would say that not just injuries, strategy, all that kind of information we’re not going to talk about,” Sharp said. “It’s all part of being this close to the ultimate goal.”
And does he have any injuries he cares to mention?