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SPORTS SPECIAL: Operation mystery ailments

NHL teams treat injury updates like state secrets: It could be wax buildup in the ear, shoulder surgery... or perhaps he stepped on a jellyfish

Posted: 03/23/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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About a month ago the Winnipeg sporting community was absolutely gripped by a mystery that was spitting out more theories than a "whodunit" detective novel.

The Jets were in Florida and Dustin Byfuglien -- star defenceman and the central figure in the story -- was a late scratch for the game that evening. It turns out Byfuglien had pulled up lame at the rink on game day while preparing for that night's meeting with the Panthers.

The Jets, as is customary across the National Hockey League, formally announced that Byfuglien was out with a "lower-body injury."

And it was precisely at that moment when the guessing began, prompting about a week of intense gossip and speculation.

Why were the Jets being secretive? Had Byfuglien injured his knee, back, ankle... all of the above? Or was something more nefarious in play? A trade? A cover-up? Had Byfuglien been whacked across the shins by Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with a lead pipe?

Get this: during his absence -- he would miss five games -- the Winnipeg Free Press newsroom even received a tip suggesting Byfuglien had been stung by a jellyfish while frolicking in the ocean during the team's off day in Florida.

No, really.

"I can tell you," said Jets director of communications Scott Brown, stifling a laugh, "that theory was one thousand percent FALSE."

Just to further feed the mystery engulfing this little drama, when Byfuglien returned and was quizzed by the media as to the nature of his injury, he joked that it was simply "some wax build-up in my ear."

At that point, one press type cracked: "That would have made it an upper-body injury then, not lower body."

The NHL, for the record, does not have any concrete rules as to how their 30 teams disclose injuries to the media and the public.

But it was in June of 2008 at the general manager's meetings when the practice of referring to injuries as "upper" and "lower-body" was unanimously approved and then put into place for the 2008-09 season. The amendment stated that teams could not falsify or misrepresent a player's condition but were also not required to disclose specifically what an injury was.

Some of it was prompted by the age-old practice, particularly around playoff time, from the concern that if a team announces a player has, for example, a left wrist injury he might as well paint a target on the area and brace for a series of hacks and whacks on the injured limb. The more detail provided, the more apt an opponent would be to try to exploit a possible weakness -- finishing checks against a player recovering from a shoulder injury, going wide on a defenceman fresh from working on a bum ankle.

And some of it comes from the basic coaches' reluctance about being forthcoming about anything, whether it's the starting goalie, line combinations or the colour of the sky that morning.

"I don't see why it's something that needs to be public information," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said after the amendment was made. "From the fans' point of view, the player is either going to play or he's not going to play. If he's playing hurt, I don't think the team should have to tell the other team what his injury is. It's a delicate one."

Interestingly, while going through the media game notes for all 30 NHL teams, there are 10 teams that appear to be more transparent about their injuries -- including the Hurricanes. A Carolina spokesman said they have taken the upper/lower body approach on reporting all injuries but those that require surgery or will keep a player out for an extended period.

But a couple of other rational reasons are in play here:

1. The NHL is adhering to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Privacy Rule that protects an individual's medical records and which "requires appropriate safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information, and sets limits and conditions on the uses and disclosures that may be made of such information without patient authorization. The Rule also gives patients rights over their health information, including rights to examine and obtain a copy of their health records, and to request corrections."

Translation: by U.S. law, teams aren't required to release diddly or squat.

2. Adopting the upper/lower body approach also allows teams some wiggle room while a player recovers. Here's Brown, explaining the Jets' approach:

"The reason we do it is that if we pinpoint exactly what the injury is and an exact timetable for the recovery it puts an additional pressure on the player and the training staff to get them back on that schedule. But each injury is different. So, if we say a player suffered a separated shoulder and he'll be out three to four weeks but he suffered a significant shoulder injury that will keep him out six to eight weeks, we spend the difference answering questions every day about our training staff and the player. 'What's the matter?' 'Why isn't he pushing harder to come back?' It's a way to remove any undue pressure from the player's recovery or rehab."

Brown said the Jets, like the Hurricanes, will reveal a specific injury if a player has had surgery or if his season was over. An example: when Tanner Glass broke his foot late last season, the club was forthcoming about what had happened. Then again, for all the precautions taken some of the secrecy is lost when a press box full of media can see Jim Slater and Anthony Peluso -- both listed as out with upper-body injuries -- wandering about with casts on their hands.

Ultimately, the NHL's upper/lower-body injury approach is about teams both protecting themselves and their players, but also about controlling the flow of information -- to the media and the public and to their opponents. And no one should ever underestimate the competitive drive -- and paranoia -- that envelopes professional sports.

As long-time NFL coach Bill Parcells once said:

"We're in the business of collecting information. We're just not in the business of exchanging information."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

THE HURTS LIST

The Winnipeg Jets injury report, as of March 22:

Name                     Games        Injury                     Out since:

Toby Enstrom       18               Upper body             Feb. 17

Zach Redmond      16               Lower body             Feb. 21

Anthony Peluso     10              Upper body             March 5

Jim Slater                 5              Upper body             March 14

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 C4

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