The outside half of his left eye was blood red, a serpentine series of stitches stretching an inch or two across just beneath.
Niklas Hjalmarsson shrugged.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said.
No, the frozen slab of rubber that was fired into his face during the second period in Toronto last week wasn’t too bad. The shot that left him bloodied and briefly dazed wasn’t too bad. After all, he came right back for the third period, right?
“He’s got a great, uh, we’ll call it pain threshold,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “We don’t even count those as even being bad injuries. It’s the ones on the feet that we get concerned about, because you can miss some real time.”
So, yeah, better to get hit in the face with a puck than the feet. Hockey, right?
There’s a certain mentality, a certain disregard for one’s own well-being, that comes with being a hockey player — particularly one willing to throw himself in front of a slap shot in a regular-season game in November. For most people, a puck to the face is terrifying. For Hjalmarsson, it’s just part of the job, one that he’s uncomfortable even talking about, because he simply doesn’t think it’s a very big deal.
“I don’t know,” he said sheepishly. “I don’t think I’m tougher than anyone else in this league. You just got to do what you got to do. If you can play, you play.”
But Hjalmarsson has shown that he’s tougher than most. Last year, he took a hard shot to the throat in Game 2 of the second round against the Minnesota Wild. He couldn’t talk for two weeks, but he played in Game 3. The Swedish defenseman is often seen limping around the dressing room after a game, the result of two or three more pucks to the thigh, to the knee, to the ankle, to the feet. Yet he’s missed just three games in the last two-plus seasons.
That mind-set can provide a huge lift to the team.
“We’ve seen plenty of times where he comes limping off the ice, it looks like he might be done, stick to the face, puck to the face, whatever it may be, and he’s always coming back and playing no matter what,” Patrick Kane said. “It definitely inspires guys. … Everyone calls him a warrior, but that’s just what he is.”
But that tough-guy mind-set can also be incredibly dangerous. Since the Toronto game, Hjalmarsson has been wearing a visor on his helmet to protect his eyes. His wife, Elina, has been urging him to do so both at home and on Twitter. Scary eye injuries to players such as Marc Staal last season and Kevin Bieksa this season, among others, have encouraged more to do so. But Hjalmarsson’s still not sold. Like Andrew Shaw — who doesn’t wear a visor because he had his face cut by one during his Rockford IceHogs days after getting hit — Hjalmarsson simply doesn’t like to wear one, saying it “feels a little like you’re in a cage,” and prefers to take his chances.
“I’ll try to get into it,” he said. “I tried it a couple of times before. I guess we’ll see how it goes.”
All players coming into the league now must wear visors. But veterans are grandfathered in, and Quenneville doesn’t plan to force the issue.
Again, for hockey players, risk is just part of the game.
“That can be delicate,” he said. “But we’re seeing a lot of players in the last little while gravitate toward [face] shields, and I think it won’t be long before everyone will be wearing one. But certain guys are definitely more at risk. He’s definitely one of them.”