Brooks Laich eyes the puck during a face-off.
Brooks Laich eyes the puck during a face-off. Chris Nelson/NPR
Brooks Laich describes two of his more dramatic injuries. And his mother talks about her son's need to put his heart into hockey:
Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich doesn't rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10. He just lumps it into two groups.
"As hockey players, we know pain," Laich said. "We know good pain and we know bad pain. You know when you're just kind of hurt and you know when you're injured."
In a game early last month on home ice, he blocked an opponent's slap shot — with his body. The Capitals were trailing by a goal, and Laich couldn't get his stick on the 90-mph missile. So he threw his body down instead.
"At the time, it stung, kind of made my leg go a little numb," Laich said. "I tried to stand and fell over a bit."
It was a risky play — but Laich was able to stop the puck on its way to the net. Even though the block hobbled him, he managed to drag himself off the ice and onto the bench.
"It's kind of a code in hockey that you don't lay on the ice," Laich said. "It makes you kind of look like a wussie a little bit. You know, something I've always tried to do is if you're hurt or something, get off the ice and let the game continue."
Courage sometimes counts as much as muscle in hockey, and Washington coach Bruce Boudreau says Laich's block showed his heart on the ice.
"To try and fight to get up and still knock the puck out of the zone and get to the bench," Boudreau said, "those are courageous, courageous moments."
Laich's father was in the crowd that night, watching his 6-foot-2-inch son crawl across the ice. And Harold Laich knows what's at stake in those moments.
"You're always playing with little injuries, and hopefully the injuries aren't of such a nature that they cause you to miss games," the elder Laich said. "But probably the first thing that will result in you missing games is not being in peak physical shape, and so he tries to keep himself there."
The younger Laich chimed in: "I think I said a few profanities back there. But I just walked up and down the hall a little bit and just tried to shake it off and get the feeling to come back into the leg and the foot."
This was not an unusual night for Brooks Laich. It is a scene that repeats itself several times a week for six months straight. Laich relies on his physical conditioning, ibuprofen and the team's trainers.
"They put a little gel on the area that got bruised, and then they do a little electronic stimulation sort of thing and then put an ice bag on it right after that," Laich said. "So you know, that and a bowl of — like my dad says — 'suck it up soup' and move on."
Two weeks later, in a scrappy road game, Laich's team was fighting off two penalties, putting them at a two-man disadvantage. Laich had dropped his stick and was playing without one as he turned to face the firing line.
Diving and sliding time and time again on the ice, he blocked three shots in quick succession with his hands and body.
"After the game, you ice it down and you're OK," Laich said. "Still, you're hurting — but then you wake up in the morning and you're like, 'Oh my God, what happened to me last night?' "
In his professional career, Laich hasn't missed a single game because of injury. He says that's part luck and part attitude.
"If I'm tired or sore or whatever, I just think of what my buddies do back home in Saskatchewan," Laich said. "They are out on the oil rig in minus-40 degrees Celsius, working outside for eight hours for a lot less money than what we make. And it just kind of brings you back to earth and humbles you, that life is pretty good."
At 25, Laich is at a sweet spot in his game: His body can deliver on the sacrifices that his heart — and his sport — demand.