In everyday life, a healthy scratch is what you do when no one’s looking.
In hockey, it’s what you never want to be.
The NHL playoffs are in full force, which means that everything looks bigger, sounds louder and feels more important. And the stigma of being a healthy scratch – an uninjured player not dressing for a game, per his coach’s decision – feels worse. The Scarlet Letter of hockey is an “N,’’ as in “not needed.’’
Players are programmed to play for their teammates. That all-for-one attitude is at the heart of the sport. To find yourself in a suit watching a playoff game from your team’s locker room is to die a little bit.
Antoine Vermette might have played 475 consecutive regular-season games, but when Games 1 and 2 of the Blackhawks’ first-round series against Nashville rolled around, he was out of uniform. Coach Joel Quenneville clearly had been unimpressed with his play.
So what’s an 11-year veteran to do?
“Your attitude is one thing you can control,’’ Vermette said Tuesday before Game 4. “Being positive and having a good energy around the guys as teammates, I think that’s the way to do it. That’s the approach to take.’’
Easier said that done.
“It’s not the ideal situation,’’ he said. “I’m not going to lie and say that. As a competitor and being around quite a bit, you definitely want to be out there and make a difference. But you’ve got to deal with it. Again, I think the attitude, the way you bring it and conduct yourself ultimately is going to help your situation, your teammates, your team.
“I’ve been through situations throughout my career, the ups and downs, and it’s how you manage to go through it. I believe that good attitude is going to take you a long way.’’
He and Andrew Desjardins, another healthy scratch the first two games, got their chances in Game 3 and played well. Desjardins scored the Hawks’ first goal, and Vermette was a plus-one and had four hits in 13 minutes, 35 seconds of ice time.
“I don’t think it’s embarrassing,’’ Desjardins said of being forced to sit. “You’re not in control of everything. You’re in control of what you do. I think you’ve got to keep that positive mindset to be ready to do what you do well. That’s pretty much all you can do, is stay positive and be ready.’’
I think most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, would be shooting 50 percent on the Desjardins scale. Be ready? Check. Stay positive? Again, easier said than done.
“Yeah, but that’s the nature of it,’’ he said. “I think that’s just hockey.’’
If it makes the players feel any better, Quenneville said deciding who has to sit out can be hard on him too.
“You’ve got to find that balance of knowing that we don’t want it to be disruptive to the locker room or the team,’’ he said. “Sometimes decisions become even tougher when that’s part of the decision-making. But I think at the end of the day, we want to address our lineup to give us the best chance of winning. Having depth and having tough decisions to make makes us a better team and a deeper team.’’
Asked if he had ever been a healthy scratch as a veteran player, Quenneville smiled and said, “I think it was more than once.’’
Who plays and who doesn’t can be used as a motivational tool. The Hawks have lots of talent. Lineup spots are written in pencil.
“It seems like every year, I usually get one or two games off,’’ forward Bryan Bickell said. “I guess I just get too comfortable during the regular season, and (Quenneville) is not happy with the level of play. Then he kind of gives me a slap on the wrist to get me going. I wish I could pinpoint why.’’
Bickell said that when he comes back after a benching, he tries to impact the game in some way – finishing checks, being effective on the forecheck and limiting his turnovers.
“We have so many players sitting out who are itching to be in this lineup,’’ he said. “I think it just fires you up even more. You want to play in these big games and those special moments to help out the team.’’
Players try to convince themselves that, by sitting out a game, they somehow are serving the greater good. That would be the quest for the Stanley Cup.
“We know everybody’s important here,’’ Desjardins said. “That’s going to come out later. I think everybody’s going to need to be a big part of the team.’’