The Detroit Red Wings have faced a lot of unfamiliar questions this season regarding what to do with injured personnel when staring in the face of a losing season. It naturally causes a lot of looking toward the future; to trading away anyone who may not fit in the long-term picture of the organization, to accruing assets such as draft picks or cap room or prospects, to developing the young players already on the team so they are ready in a few years to make the big push for a cup.
Over the past several weeks there has been a low rumble regarding the Wings’ beaten and broken players. “Just shut him down for the season. What do they have left to play for?” is the usual saying heard when discussing injuries to the likes of Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall, and whoever else happens to be aching with a few too many gray hairs. And there is a line of logic behind those feelings. Undeniably, the Detroit Red Wings have, going back several years now, a log jam on the roster. From a utilitarian viewpoint it makes sense, and seems almost merciful given Detroit’s floundering season, to shelf any old and injured player like Jimmy Howard or Niklas Kronwall. To let them properly recover while letting a younger player come up and get valuable experience playing for the big club. See, GM’s just need to properly manage the chess pieces on their roster. By doing so they are simply maximizing strengths while minimizing weakness with machine-like efficiency, much like a risk-averse corporation, or that asshole you play Dungeons and Dragons with.
But here’s the deal. Players like Niklas Kronwall and Jimmy Howard cannot be viewed simply as a resource to be optimally utilized by the Red Wings organization, because they aren’t resources at all. They are human beings. They are professional hockey players who are incredibly competitive and have gone through many hardships to get to where they are. This includes the religious devotion to training, conditioning, and personal health that is demanded of all professional players. It includes sacrificing a social life outside of the game. It often involves moving very far away from home—parents, siblings, grandparents, friends—in pursuit of a lofty goal. They have spent most of their lives meticulously dedicated to their bodies’ well-being, and by now they know the needs, capabilities, and limits of their health very well.
I really don’t want to create a false-equivalency between my own experiences and that of an NHL player, but as a former NCAA athlete the absolute most frustrating experience is battling a series of sidelining injuries. Almost all my teammates dealt with the injury bug at some point in their career, and it is emotionally painful when the mind wants to be competitive so badly and the body just cannot do it. Part of what makes this so hard is that the body heals differently for every person, every time. Unless one of my teammates or I had surgery, no one was ever 100% sure they would be out indefinitely. Sure, we had timetables for recovering from inflamed hip flexors, strained hamstrings, or plantar fasciitis, but those are only estimations. Usually, we were never truly certain how long it would take the body to heal and how well it would do so.
Personally, I lost the better part of two seasons (out of eight) to compete. It was pretty awful. No one ever said that that I was being “shut down” for the season, and they had no right to say that. It was my body, I was a member of the team, and I had every right to get better and contribute to my teammates and the team that I loved.
NHL players have the exact same right to play if they can, especially since their livelihood is involved. Any decision to shelf someone away should cause considerable pause, careful thought, and a two-way conversation between the player and organization. It is not a throwaway decision, and the Red Wings cannot garner a reputation of totally discarding players once they are not useful in the short-term. Not with this rebuild. The Red Wings need to treat their players with the respect and dignity they deserve and not overstep their bounds in the realm of physical health.