One is a grizzled 32 years old, the other is exactly a decade younger. Despite the age difference, they are members of an NHL fraternity that is mercifully small.
Injuries are a fact of life in pro sports, but some hold a greater squirm factor than others, like those involving eyes or the spine.
Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens are used to the questions by now, having both suffered cervical fractures on the ice.
But it’s clear they’d be happier if folks would just move on.
Pacioretty suffered his non-displaced vertebral fracture last winter when Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara rammed him into a stanchion at the Bell Centre, whereas Cole’s compression fracture – courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik’s check from behind – dates back to the 2005-06 season.
“He still deals with the situation to this day. Every day I work with him on different techniques to roll out the soft tissue on my neck, different stretches, different rehab exercises,” Pacioretty said this week. “He wants to help me out a lot and it’s a good feeling because he’s been through it and he knows what it takes to get to 100 per cent.”
Cole has the benefit of hindsight, and said that while neck fractures are qualitatively different than, say, a knee reconstruction, it’s not helpful to think of them as a different animal – the psychological road back to roaring recklessly around a hockey rink is difficult enough as it is.
“You can’t just ignore it, but sometimes stuff just happens,” Cole said. “Some guys have shoulders, other guys have backs, Max and I had a neck.”
The former Carolina Hurricanes forward said that over the years he’s developed a practice and pregame warm-up routine to make sure his neck is ready to withstand the rigours of an NHL game.
“The more years you play, the longer the routine gets,” he smiled.
It will doubtless help Pacioretty that he and Cole are similar players – big, fast skaters whose game is predicated on the direct approach.
Cole has acknowledged that it took a while before he felt like himself again, but in the first few days of training camp Pacioretty both received and dished out some heavy hits – he thumped 19-year-old prospect Brendan Gallagher in a scrimmage, for example.
“Overall it’s good, there are a couple of other times where I got hit into the boards, I think that’s a really true test, with my head hitting the boards or hitting someone’s shoulder, it went a lot better than I thought it would,” he said.
That said, the Connecticut native allowed that he will likely have to adapt the way he plays, particularly along the boards and when he’s trying to squeeze past a defender.
“Sometimes I’m going to have to lay off in that situation and realize that I’m in a vulnerable position and the other person might not really care, and they might be willing to put me into that divider,” he said.
Those words illustrate the task ahead for Pacioretty: how to protect himself better without diminishing his effectiveness as a player.
On Tuesday night, the Habs kicked off their preseason against the Dallas Stars at a newly refurbished Bell Centre, which has replaced the rink-side glass with a lighter, flexible and more forgiving plastic material.
The new equipment was in the works before the Pacioretty hit, but the incident resulted in a full-scale re-evaluation of facilities around the league.
The stanchion where Pacioretty’s career – and, it’s not too dramatic to say, life – nearly ended has been moved back by 18 inches, and new curved barriers have been installed at the end of the player benches.
Though Pacioretty didn’t dress for the game, Cole did, earning a rousing ovation when he was introduced for the first time since joining the team as a free agent.
The first collision on the new glass came eight seconds into the first period when former Canadiens forward Mike Ribeiro bumped Tomas Plekanec into the side boards.
The sway suggested fans may also have to modify their behaviour, beer cups placed along the boards are liable to end up in the drinker’s lap.