LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
By this time in the hockey season, many players are already banged up and playing through their pain. NPR's Gemma Hooley checks in with a Washington Capitals player who can't seem to help but put his body on the line.
GEMMA HOOLEY: Brooks Laich doesn't rate his pain on a scale of one to ten. He just lumps it into two groups.
BROOKS LAICH: As hockey players, we know pain. 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.
CHRIS NELSON: Slapshot by Varlene(ph). A sliding block that time, by Brooks Laich having some trouble here - can't put any weight at all on his right leg.
HOOLEY: In a home game in Washington, D.C. with his team trailing by a goal, Laich knows he has to stop the puck. He can't get his stick on the 90-mile-an-hour missile, so he throws his body down, instead.
LAICH: At the time, it stung and it made my leg go a little numb. I tried to stand on it and I fell over a little bit.
NELSON: Trying to get himself back into the action. Now, is sort of helpless, and Brooks right near the play. What guts by Brooks Laich, that's the type of player he is.
LAICH: It's kind of a code in hockey that you don't lay on the ice, and 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.
HOOLEY: Courage sometimes counts as much as muscle in hockey. And coach Bruce Boudreau says, Laich's block shows heart on the ice.
BRUCE BOUDREAU: To try and fight to get up, and still knock the puck out of the zone and get to the bench, those are courageous, courageous moments.
HOOLEY: Laich's dad is in the crowd on this night, to see his six-foot-two-inch son crawl across the ice. Harold Laich knows what's at stake in these moments.
HAROLD LAICH: You're always playing with little injuries, and hopefully the injuries aren't of such a nature that they cause you to miss games. But probably the first thing that will result in missing games is not being in peak physical shape. So, he tries to keep himself there.
LAICH: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HOOLEY: This 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.
LAICH: 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. So, that and a bowl of, like my dad says, suck-it-up-soup, and move on.
HOOLEY: Two weeks later in a scrappy road game, Laich's team is fighting off two penalties. They're down two men on the ice, and Laich is without a stick as he turns to face the firing line.
NELSON: Stole. Blocked by Laich without his stick, he may be shot-blocked with his hand, and took a bite out of that left paw. Stole, didn't get it through. Excellent job by Laich. Brown waiting. Bodies flying. Stole - fired. Ouch, again. How many can Brooks Laich take in the hands and body?
LAICH: After the game you sit down, you're OK, 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?
HOOLEY: In his professional career, Laich hasn't missed a single game to injury. He feels this is part luck and part attitude.
LAICH: And sometimes, I also think if I'm tired or sore, whatever, I just think of what my buddies do back home in Saskatchewan.They are out on the oil rig in minus-40 degrees Celsius, working outside for eight hours for a lot less money than we make. And it just kind of brings you back to earth and humbles you, that life is pretty good.
HOOLEY: At 25, Saskatchewan native Brooks Laich is at a sweet spot in his game. His body can deliver on the sacrifices that his heart and his sport demand. Gemma Hooley, NPR News.
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