The worst part is, Paul Ysebaert isn’t even rooting for the American Olympic team. “I’m Canadian!” he said, shaking his head. “I could give two hoots if they win.”
He glanced at his left knee, which stuck out from his shorts. It looked like a satellite photo of the lunar surface, all dark and bluish, wrinkled and bumpy. Two days earlier, the kneecap was jarred loose in a collision during an exhibition game against Team USA — the thing was floating near the outside of his leg until it popped back in. That might sound simple. It isn’t. A kneecap is not a hubcap. You don’t just tighten the nuts and keep driving.
“I was really scared when it happened because I went numb, you know?” Ysebaert said. “Couldn’t feel anything for a long time.” He stretched his leg out and surveyed the damage. “Scariest bleeping feeling in the world, when you go numb like that.”
You can say that again. Just look down the sports page until you reach the name Mike Utley. Utley, now paralyzed for life, also went down in freak fashion — but he was trying to help his team score a touchdown in an important game. What was Paul Ysebaert, the Red Wings’ leading goal scorer — or any of the Red Wings, for that matter — doing out there Sunday in the first place? An exhibition game? Against an Olympic-hopeful team? In the middle of the NHL season? Come on. That’s like asking a fire fighter to stop his truck and fill up your swimming pool on the way to a blaze.
“We didn’t want to be out there, none of us,” Ysebaert admitted, rubbing the knee. He looked over at teammate Gerard Gallant, who shrugged sympathetically.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Ysebaert said.
And so, in the interest of public relations and a nice pile of money — which the NHL is pocketing from the series even after donating $1 million to the U.S. and Canadian Olympic programs — Ysebaert watched Tuesday’s game against Calgary on a TV inside the locker room. For this night, maybe a few more, he was off the job. Somewhere, far away, the Olympic kids were going out for dinner. When things are going bad . . .
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for developing our Olympic teams. But I don’t think it’s the responsibility of NHL players, who get paid to win NHL games. Besides, if you’re really looking for sharp competition, you probably won’t get it from professionals who don’t want to be out there and are just skating not to get hurt.
“Oh, I think NHL players going at half-speed is still better competition than some college team,” coach Bryan Murray said in defense of the affair. But remember, Murray, like the other general managers around the league, agreed to these exhibitions in the first place. And also remember, the game put money in the coffers of the Wings’ front office, which sold it as part of the season-ticket package — even though only half the fans with tickets showed up.
“The whole thing was just bad,” said Ysebaert. He flicked his stick in the air as his teammates pulled on uniforms. The last time he missed a game because of injury was the playoffs, a cracked sternum. That, at least, was important. Here he was on a hot streak, scoring 15 goals, and it was interrupted by some kid named Lance Pitlick, who not only stuck his knee out on Ysebaert but later crashed Sergei Fedorov and his sore shoulder into the boards. Thanks for coming, Lance. Have fun in Albertville.
Now Ysebaert put on a brown suit and brown socks, missing his first game of the season. “I was going so good, I didn’t want to score a goal in that exhibition (he did anyway) just so I wouldn’t waste any, you know?”
He rolled his eyes. “On top of that, I had my car stolen today.”
What a lousy week. Injuries just part of the routine
Between periods Tuesday, Ysebaert did a TV interview. He promised the announcer he would be back for Friday’s game, even though the initial reports were far less optimistic. After the interview he paced the halls in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena.
“How do you like watching?” I asked.
“It’s brutal,” he said. “I’m eating pizza in there, watching the game. I gotta get back out on the ice. I’m skating tomorrow, definitely.”
And he limped down the hall.
You always think it’s going to happen at the height of glory — the Stanley Cup finals, the Super Bowl, the World Series, fans screaming, millions watching, you go for the ball, the puck, the catch, you do some superhuman thing and you crash into the boards, a magnificent collision. That’s how athletes get hurt in sports, right?
Wrong. The truth is, most injuries occur in crazy fashion. Steve Chiasson is skating backwards in practice, hits a rut in the ice, ruins his ankle for nearly a month. Martin Lapointe makes a routine check during practice, bends his hand back, breaks a bone, out for nearly eight weeks. Vincent Riendeau is skating alone in his crease, going side to side, something pops in his knee, he’s gone for months. Nobody touched him.
Here’s the point: Injuries happen often enough. You don’t need to increase the odds. Our Olympic teams will be ready, one way or another. But the hottest scorer on an NHL team shouldn’t be watching a game from the locker
room, eating pizza, not because somebody scheduled an exhibition game. There are worse ways to get injured, I suppose. But not many.