San Jose Sharks center Logan Couture (39) skates off the ice after being injured during second period of an NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
When the hockey puck skipped up at 90 miles an hour and smashed him directly in the face, Logan Couture knew right away that his mouth was in big trouble.
He did not know that more than two weeks later, he would continue to be dealing with a tooth-and-palate injury so grisly that it occasionally still hurts him “to breathe.”
To breathe? Yes, to breathe.
(Feel free to wince here.)
It’s hard to play any sport without breathing, as we all know. Couture is breathing and handling the discomfort as he practices with the Sharks. His bottom teeth are being held together with wires. The top teeth have a plastic bond coating that keeps them from moving or falling out. Peering inside his mouth when he talks is like peering into a collapsed mine being propped up by temporary timber. It’s likely that later this spring, seven or eight of the teeth will be removed and/or replaced.
“It’s not pleasant,” Couture said. “It’s not fun.”
And it’s going to be not fun for as long as the Sharks are alive in the playoffs, beginning Wednesday night here against the Edmonton Oilers. Couture is not officially back in the lineup yet after sitting out every game and most practices since March 26 when he was injured in Nashville. But he was on the team’s charter flight here Tuesday. He has been going harder in drills this week, wearing a full wire cage mask attached to his helmet.
Last spring, Couture was the NHL’s leading postseason scorer. The Sharks want him back on the ice. He wants to be back on the ice.
“In my mind,” Couture said. “I wish I could have played right after it happened.”
Except he couldn’t. Hockey players have teeth knocked out all the time–those jokes about bicuspids being swept up in the Zamboni filter are no jokes–and most return to action almost immediately. So fans may wonder why Couture’s situation has been so different.
It’s because his injury was way different, as explained in a phone call Tuesday by Dr. Donald Goudy, a member of the Sharks’ dental team. With the freaky nature of how the puck deflected off an opponent’s stick and flew like a missile into Couture’s lower face, the physics of his injury were more . . . well, more like him getting hit in the chops with a large hammer.
“It’s probably the equivalent of that, sure,” Goudy said.
(Feel free to wince again.)
Goudy would not be specific about Couture’s condition, per privacy rules and the usual NHL secrecy protocol at playoff time. However, in general terms, Goudy compared Couture’s injury to those he sees when a car accident victim’s face hits the steering wheel or a mountain biker loses control and flips over his or her handlebars.
(More wincing permitted.)
Couture, too, has been forthright about what he has endured. After leaving the rink in Nashville, he was taken to Vanderbilt Hospital. There, doctors manually maneuvered his palate and lower mouth back into a normal shape before using arch bars and all of that wiring and plastic to (A) make sure the palate didn’t collapse again and (B) keep the teeth inside the gums to see if they could survive. It’s a wonder Couture did not suffer a concussion or a broken jaw. But he did not. He merely went to bed and was in misery. After a few days, he could finally chew solid food very slowly with his rear molars, taking up to 40 minutes per meal.
There is no official competition for toughest Bay Area athlete. But at this time of year, Couture and several Shark teammates (who are dealing with other injuries) win the unofficial title. Every pro sport requires rugged resilience. But you can ask Goudy, who treats dental injuries of many teams in many sports. He readily confirms that hockey players are the grittiest pros he knows. Without naming names, he says that one particular group of players in one particular sport are often reluctant to return until their injuries are almost totally healed.
“If it was like that in hockey, nobody would play by the middle of the season,” Goudy said. “In hockey, it’s like they play an NFL game every other day.”
Applause, then, for Couture being so open about what he’s had to go through just to get in position for a potential playoff role. Too many hockey players disdain any talk of the physical sacrifices they make to lace up skates and compete this time of year, after 82 regular season games of banging and bruising. Fans need to know. It allows fans to appreciate what they’re seeing even more.
The hunch here is, Wednesday night, they will see Couture. Is he risking more damage to his mouth if he does play? Couture thinks not. He is wearing the cage in front of his face, after all. He tried skating with another type of protective mask, one with a clear plastic semicircle surrounding his mouth. But it was more difficult to see the puck through the plastic than through the cage, the same kind he wore as a youth hockey player years ago.
How will Couture feel, though, the next time he stands in front of the net and tries to deflect a puck past the goalie? That’s what he was trying to do in Nashville when his mouth imploded.
“It’s probably going to be more comfortable for me now because I’ve got a full cage on,” Couture said. “More confidence. Hopefully, the puck doesn’t get up like the last time. But there should be more confidence than before.”
How bad will it hurt if someone checks him and the helmet and cage is rattled?
“I don’t know,” Couture said. “I haven’t had it rattled.”
He can’t wait for that to happen. Hockey player.