Hockey players are famous for feats of toughness and playing through calamitous injury, from Bobby Baun's broken leg to Bob Gainey's shredded shoulders - now the Montreal Canadiens' Josh Gorges has a tale to add to the annals.
The Kelowna, B.C., native will shortly have season-ending surgery on his balky right knee, and on Friday he revealed he's been playing with a severed anterior cruciate ligament in the joint for seven years.
Given the twist-and-turn demands of skating and the rigours of playing defence in the NHL, it's a startling admission.
"It's something that I've always prided myself in: you just keep playing . . . if it was up to me I'd probably still be playing," he said, glumly.
And Gorges, who had played a team-high 150 straight games, insists his case is not unique.
"It's been fine, I have it checked out every year, and there's a lot of other guys that play hockey without an ACL," he said.
Strictly speaking that's true, but typically hockey players with shorn ACLs are hacking around in beer leagues, not playing in the NHL - notable exceptions include former Ottawa Senator Shean Donovan, Minnesota's Andrew Brunette, former Calgary Flame Joe Nieuwendyk and Detroit Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman.
But most of those at the top level have carried the injury for a few months before getting it repaired, not their entire pro careers. In that respect, Gorges' situation is unusual, if not remarkable.
"It's certainly not typical in a pro athlete," said Dr. Howard Winston, a sports medicine expert who teaches at the University of Toronto. "The knee can buckle, you can damage the meniscal surfaces . . . any time you damage a part of the joint it can be very serious."
"Some players have been able to play for extended periods without one or the other of the cruciate ligaments ... [but]I think it's fair to say he's been pretty lucky having gotten this far," said Terry Kane, a former Flames head athletic therapist and the man long entrusted with the care and feeding of Nieuwendyk's knees.
Gorges first hurt the knee in 2003 while playing for the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League, but carried on playing. Since then, he has monitored the joint closely.
"Doctors kept telling me 'the knee's stable, you can keep playing, and eventually, down the road you're going to have to fix it,'" he said. "You go through soreness, stiffness, but that's just the wear and tear of being an athlete. The thing that allowed me to play is that I didn't have pain, I didn't have to ice it down after games, it wasn't a problem . . . I had to wear a brace and it acted as an ACL."
Gorges has periodically had flare-ups and played through them - an ACL injury is not as debilitating to a hockey player as it is to a soccer or basketball player - although that hasn't been possible since Dec. 26.
That night, the 26-year-old was killing a five-on-three penalty on Long Island and tried to push an Islanders player away from the side of the net. That's when his knee seized up and he fell to the ice.
"Earlier this year I tore some meniscus and that was the problem. I tried to play and push through it, and it was fine until the last episode in New York there where it locked up on me," he said.
Team doctors warned that another occurrence could cause permanent damage, and that's when the decision to sit the defenceman, who has become a linchpin of the Habs blueline, was made.
Gorges allowed that his contract status - he is slated to become a restricted free agent on July1 - was a factor in delaying a decision on surgery.
But Habs general manager Pierre Gauthier has delivered both private and public reassurances that a new deal can be worked out.
"They want to look out for my best interests and not the interests of the team, and that's nice to hear," said Gorges, who will face six months on the sidelines. "Right now it's tough to swallow and it sucks, but down the road I'll have a good knee."Report Typo/Error