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(LYLE STAFFORD)
(LYLE STAFFORD)

ROY MacGREGOR

Bionic Sami Salo Add to ...

He makes the Black Knight look like a wuss.

Sami Salo has suffered so many injuries he no longer knows the number - best guess is 40 and, likely, counting - yet the 36-year-old remains a critical part of the Vancouver Canucks' hopes for a Stanley Cup.

And not just as a highly dependable defenceman. In Game 4 against the San Jose Sharks, it was Salo setting up the first goal and then scoring twice himself that led to Vancouver's 4-2 victory in the game that is considered the turning point in the Western Conference final.

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There were doubts - including dark thoughts in his own mind - this past season that he might never play again, having severed his Achilles tendon while playing floor ball last summer. It had nothing to do with contact: He simply took off on a run and there was a sound in the air like a gun going off - and then he was down, writhing in pain.

It was an injury far different from the multiple groin, shoulders, wrists, hands and leg injuries he has suffered in a 11-year NHL career, including taking one puck in the face that caved in his nasal and sinus cavities to the point where his face required metal reconstruction. But that puck in the face was not the strangest injury - the venomous snake bite he suffered one summer back in Finland takes that prize - and not even the snake bite is comparable to the wincing injury that had Canucks fans chanting "Balls of Steel! Balls of Steel" from the stands when the irrepressible, unstoppable Salo took to the ice against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year.

"Tis but a scratch!" roared the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail after King Arthur had chopped off his arm.

"I've had worse!"

Salo, on the other hand, says he never had anything worse, or more painful, than the Achilles tendon injury that cost him 52 games this season and, for a long while, made his NHL career seem seriously in doubt. The pain was so bad and the progress so slow that he himself began to feel he might never come back. Had it not been for supportive family and friends, he might have stopped trying to return for the first time in his life.

But that would not be Sami Salo, the pale-skinned, serious-looking Turku, Finland, native who might also have the driest sense of humour in all of hockey.

Last year, when Salo was downed by a Duncan Keith slap shot that caught him right where the cup is supposed to protect, grown men gasped as Salo collapsed to the ice and had to be helped off. The pain, he later admitted, was unbearable. While it was first reported that one of Salo's testicles had been ruptured by the shot, it was later determined that the injury was more a deep bruise.

Unbelievably, Salo played the very next game, though first having team doctors give him two numbing injections in the injured area. The "Balls of Steel!" chant from the fans was meant as respect, admiration and a bit of disbelief.

When reporters asked him later how he was, Salo's simply said, "The general was fine at first, but the battalion was down."

"It's just a flesh wound!" shouted the Black Knight when his other arm was chopped off.

Salo said he actually feels as healthy today as he has since he was traded to Vancouver in 2002 by the Ottawa Senators. There are the usual "lumps and bruises" from playoff hockey, but he thinks part of the reason he is feeling so good is, thanks to the Achilles tendon, "I had a lot shorter season than most."

It is Salo's utter fearlessness that gets him hurt. He blocks shots. He plays tougher than his size in front of the net. But he has had to adjust his game considerably from what it was when he first joined the Senators.

"It's obviously different," he said of the NHL before and after the 2004-05 lockout. "A D man could pretty much print whatever it said on the shaft of the stick on the back of the guy you were checking. We could crosscheck. Now battles are lower in the corner, trying to prevent the forwards from going to the net. And you block more shots now rather than battling in front of the net."

It has also changed on the attack, where his cannonading shot from the point was, at one point, a serious financial concern for the struggling Senators. He went through more than 400 sticks in one season alone, regularly breaking several a game on point shots the wooden sticks simply could not handle.

Since he switched to a composite stick, he has had far fewer breakages, he said, but the point shot itself has changed dramatically now that everyone, forwards included, are expected to fall in front of shots.

"It makes it a little more challenging," he said. "You have to find that lane, take an extra step or try to fake out the forward into going down. It's tougher to get shots through - not just the first guy, but there might be a second guy in the slot trying to block the shot. But all you can really do is try and get it by the first guy."

Against San Jose, it worked wonderfully. If it works against Boston Bruins, it could potentially be the difference between Vancouver, and Salo's, first Stanley Cup and a 41st season still in search of a championship.

Salo, whose contract comes up this summer, said he'd still like to keep going.

"Call it a draw!" screamed the Black Knight when he had also lost his legs in the battle.

Sami Salo wouldn't. He's always thinking comeback.

 

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