Adventures In Hockey Dentistry

The quarterfinals of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs are under way. On Friday night, in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals veteran forward Eric Belanger lost several teeth in a collision at the end of the first period. He missed just a few shifts and returned to play the rest of the game as soon as the team dentist could get him stitched up.

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Hockey players are tough. That's a given. And with the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs under way, it's not uncommon for players to play through injuries that would bench the rest of us. Even so, it's not every day that a hockey player ends a game with a nine-tooth deficit.

NPR's Gemma Hooley brings us this story, a story guaranteed to make a dentist cringe.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)

GEMMA HOOLEY: Washington Capitals forward Eric Belanger is the first to call it an accident. In a playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens Friday night, an opponent's stick connected with Belanger's mouth at full swing.

Mr. ERIC BELANGER (Hockey Forward, Washington Capitals): The stick, he made a pass and the stick just came up, and I felt my teeth shatter right away. And I knew I was in trouble.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Unidentified Man #2: Big collision at center. Eric Belanger lost his helmet, and he is down. Eric Belanger down on the ice, a center ice collision. The whistle has stopped the play.

HOOLEY: As Belanger knelt on the ice and saw the blood, he knew he was hurt. He also knew he wanted to keep playing. What he did next led to one of the more gruesome replays in recent hockey history.

(Soundbite of hockey game)

Unidentified Man #2: Still trying to sort out - we mentioned Eric Belanger getting clipped by that high stick from Marc-Andre Bergeron. Here's what happened. Bergeron - through the middle of the ice, and it takes Belanger's helmet off. Now, watch this. This is a bit tough to watch, but Belanger pulls out his own tooth, on the bench.

HOOLEY: Talk about taking one for the team. On TV, viewers saw Belanger reach in, pull out a bloody tooth, and present it solemnly to the team trainer like a small, enameled trophy. Then he went to the locker room, where team dentist Thomas Lenz peered at the ruins in his mouth.

Dr. THOMAS LENZ (Dentist, Washington Capitals): I said, you know, Eric, this is something we can handle; you know, it'll be all right. There were multiple lacerations, lots of teeth were damaged. But I said, we'll get you through it. In fact, we could probably do something to even get you back on the ice right now - which he was happy about.

HOOLEY: Pumped with Novocain and with more than 30 sutures to stop the bleeding, Belanger rejoined the game. He'd barely missed a shift. On Saturday morning after practice, he faced the media pale and swollen.

Mr. BELANGER: I'll try the best I can.

HOOLEY: Pausing every few words to feel around his mouth with his tongue, Belanger itemized the damage through split and bloodied lips.

Mr. BELANGER: Stitches and six, seven missing teeth. It was a long night and, you know, especially with the loss, it makes it a lot tougher to digest this morning.

HOOLEY: Six or seven missing teeth was merely the battlefield assessment. After three hours in Lenz's dentist chair on Saturday afternoon, the tally rose.

Dr. LENZ: I think we have nine teeth to either replace or do some serious work on. And we got him to the point yesterday where, you know, everything is stable, and he should be fine until we get the time to really fix it properly.

HOOLEY: That time is after the season. Right now, Belanger is in Montreal for tonight's game six against the Canadiens. He's hoping the Tooth Fairy will bring him the Stanley Cup.

For NPR News, I'm Gemma Hooley.

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