Pretend, just for a moment, that you are a professional hockey player. You slide into the post and end up with a bad injury, a tear to the biggest ligament in your knee along with other associated trauma. The team doctor evaluates you and lays out your options – you could have surgery, one that would have you out 6 months to a year after rehab and would definitively fix the issue, or you could attempt to strengthen the muscles around the knee and allow the ligament to scar down, the plateau fractures to heal. This would take 4-6 months of rehab and has an unclear, but potentially significant, chance of success.
What would you do? And, more to the point of this story, does choosing either of the two options say anything about your character? Does your eventual outcome?
The NHL clearly believes it does. They have produced an hour-long documentary about Connor McDavid’s return from tear in his PCL that will be aired in both Canada and the United States this evening.
The true test of greatness is how you respond to adversity.— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) February 18, 2020
The untold story of Connor McDavid's journey back to the ice from injury airs tomorrow at 10:30pm on NBCSN. pic.twitter.com/T2mcYK4kvB
The chosen tagline “The true test of greatness is how you respond to adversity” is not only overblown for an athlete returning from a knee injury but, quite frankly, is absurd in this context. Any serious injury can’t be characterized as simply adversity, and along those same lines a PCL tear, just like a broken femur or post-concussion syndrome, is not a test of mettle. They are biologic realities that necessitate certain responses, and it is dangerous to imply that willpower or athletic prowess is enough to skip right over all the boring healing process.
This piece is not a criticism of McDavid. He chose (hopefully, at least) the more conservative path of treatment, put in a grueling rehab stint and has returned to play without losing much of a beat. His offseason work is certainly worthy of acknowledgement.
But this is a criticism, a reproach to and an absolute condemnation of the underlying message being sent by both the production of this documentary and the NHL’s marketing of it. The underlying message being sent is greatness can and, in fact, should overcome biological necessity. A truly remarkable athlete can overcome anything in a shorter timeframe because of his grit, his toughness, his willingness to work.
That’s incredibly dangerous.
There are certainly times in modern medicine where you have a choice of which approach to take, where a person’s willingness to put in the work on the front end may have them return to play faster than the initial projection. But there are many times when there is no choice, when the only option is to step back, take that time or even step away.
Take, for instance, Stephen Johns. The Dallas Stars defenseman needed 22 months of time away from the ice to allow his brain to heal, to get over the post-traumatic headaches that threatened not only his career but his future quality of life. No amount of work in the offseason was going to do that. No number of minutes on the exercise bike, no amount of weight on a leg press would speed up this process.
Take, on the other hand, Taylor Fedun. Or Kurtis Foster. Or Kevin Fiala. Or any of the other NHL players who fractured their femurs before the league wised up and removed touch icing from the game. They had no option to choose the non-surgical route. Heck, any one of them could have died from the initial injury – without surgery they very well may have bled to death into the thigh muscles if the broken ends of the femur cut the large artery in the leg.
Take, on the extreme end of things, Rich Peverley, Jiri Fischer and potentially Jay Bouwmeester. No amount of work will fix the electrical issues in their hearts. No want, no underlying athletic skill or desire, will allow them to return to the game they love.
Injuries are not a test of character, despite the NHL marketing to the contrary. A player who suffers a concussion and chooses to tell the trainer, to sit out a week and allow himself to heal is no less of a team asset than one who hides the symptoms. A player who requests surgery on his torn MCL and understands that may cost him a few months off the ice (with the gain of increased function in the future) is making the absolute best decision for him. So is the one who understand the risks but chooses to attempt a rehab-only approach.
Athletes will inevitably get injured or sick or otherwise become unhealthy, and the best treatment plan is the one agreed upon by the player and his doctor with full knowledge of the risk and benefits. Sometimes that needs surgery. Sometimes it can be just rehab. Sometimes it means complete removal of yourself from the game that you love for a short (or, in some cases, a long) time. Sometimes it means leaving the game you love forever.
Having an injury that responds to any intervention, from time away to surgery, is a reflection on the injury in and of itself, not the athlete who suffered it. The path chosen for an attempted return is absolutely, 100 percent, not a reflection on the player’s athletic aptitude, desire to play, dedication to his teammates or moral character.
For the NHL to endorse that message, even if it’s not what they’re trying to say, is foolish, counterproductive, and extremely dangerous. It leads down the path of hiding injuries, of not reaching out for help when needed, of ignoring the best medical and personal judgement because of outside expectations.
Connor McDavid is not a better hockey player or man because he had to come back from a PCL tear. Stephen Johns is not a better player or man because he had to come back from post-traumatic headaches. Rich Peverley is not a worse hockey player or man because no doctor would medically clear him to return to play.
To equate a successful return from injury, no matter the magnitude, to a reflection on character, an underlying “greatness”, is a folly. Shame on the NHL for their endorsement of this awful trope.