Rick Nash is one of the most talented players in the NHL, and his trade from the Blue Jackets to the Rangers was one of the biggest moves of the NHL off-season. After years in Columbus, he finally got the chance to perform on a big stage, and the early reviews were good, despite his team's disappointing start. With the hockey world focusing so much attention on him, everything about Nash and his game was to be dissected this year. All of which makes the following even more bizarre: Rick Nash hasn't played since February 17, and no one knows why.
Well that's not exactly true: We know he has some sort of injury, and Nash presumably knows what it is, as do his doctors and his coaches. But the rest of us are forced to speculate about the nature of his injury, because the Rangers won't disclose it. For a while, the guess was it might be a re-aggravation of a groin injury he suffered while playing in Europe during the lockout. Then it was believed that Nash might have suffered a concussion, possibly related to a hit by Milan Lucic on February 12. Those are both reasonable guesses, but they're just that: educated guesses.
What's crazy about all this, however, isn't just that an NHL player -- a star, no less -- was placed on injured reserve this past weekend without his team saying why. It's that in the NHL, this insanity qualifies as only a mild surprise.
It's something of a running joke among hockey fans that, particularly come playoff time, there are only two types of injuries a player can suffer: a "lower body injury" and an "upper body injury." Teams keep these things intentionally vague: A lower body injury can mean anything from "this player stubbed his toe in the locker room" to "this player's leg was bitten off by a shark."
The NHL changed its policy about disclosing injuries in 2008, decreeing that teams "no longer are required to disclose the specific nature of player injuries." Teams were required to announce if a player would miss a game because of an injury, and they were prohibited from providing "untruthful information" about the nature of an injury, but they wouldn't have to disclose the specifics that sports fans are used to. (Compare all that secrecy to the thoroughness of the typical NFL injury report, which are roughly the length of your average Robert Caro book.)
Teams, naturally, take full advantage of the leeway they're given by that language. But this isn't necessarily about a player's right to privacy. NHL teams don't want opponents to target injured players -- or, more specifically, the injured parts of injured players. The thinking goes that if you announce a player will miss a game because of a sore wrist, you might as well paint a bullseye on that wrist when he returns to the lineup.
In fact, if disclosing the nature of a player's injury is potentially beneficial to a team, you can bet they'll come up with something more specific that an "upper body injury." To use the Rangers again as an example, during the first round of last year's playoffs, center Brian Boyle had to leave Game 5 after a hit from Ottawa's Chris Neil. Rangers coach John Tortorella believed the hit to be dirty, and he made a point after the game of saying that Boyle had a concussion.
So why would Tortorella -- who famously gave very little to reporters during the playoffs last season, particularly after losses -- dish on the nature of an injury? Because the NHL (stupidly) considers whether an incident resulted in an injury when it doles out supplemental discipline, and Tortorella, presumably, was trying to get the league to suspend Neil. (Neil wasn't suspended, nor should he have been.) When it was in the Rangers' best interest to give out the nature of an injury, they did, but examples like that are rare. Which isn't to say teams never disclose specifics about injured players, but such things become less common as the games get more important. And sometimes, as with Nash, those specifics aren't released even though there's plenty of regular season left to be played.
It's sometimes said that sports leagues disclose injury information mostly for the benefit of gamblers, but make no mistake: Lots of people care about these things, even if they don't have money (or fantasy results, or both) riding on the health of a given player. Those people are called fans, and what makes this lack of disclosure so annoying is that we live in an era when so much other information is so readily available. Being a fan in 2013 means being as informed as you want to be: With the click of a mouse you can access stats and crunch numbers. With a couple more clicks, you can break down video. With still a few more, you can study your favorite team's salary cap situation and play armchair GM. Beat reporters provide informative tidbits on things like the line combinations being used at a team's practice, while fans can read so much about prospects that they're armed with their full histories before they ever suit up in the NHL. We crave information about our favorite teams and players, and more of that information is available every year. But yet, something as basic as "Why isn't this player able to play?" is kept a secret.
Ultimately, teams will do whatever is in their best interest as long as the rules allow it. When a coach describes a bruised ankle as a "lower body injury" come playoff time, he's not necessarily doing it to be difficult. And not that they have much of a choice, but hockey fans have come to accept that they won't get to know every last detail about the team they're obsessing over. In essence, here's how it's presented: You won't be fully informed, but it's actually for the best! Sure, you'll be kept in the dark about injuries, but hey, if you don't know what's going on, neither does the opponent. In other words: It's for the good of the team, and shouldn't you want what's best for the team?
At this point, though, it feels like hockey fans are just used to this sort of thing, and have come to accept it as business as usual. We want to be fully informed and know about the health of our favorite players, but we don't always get what we want, do we?
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Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com.