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The Good Book compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: “….is physically small but what tremendous effects it can boast of!”
Without a doubt the human tongue has probably been the source of more trouble than any other body member—for both individuals and corporate groups.
As a result the English language boasts a number of colourful figures of speech which betray that reality: “tongue lashing”; “tongue in cheek”; “slip of the tongue”, and “tongue tied”.
Occasionally, however, the tongue physically is misused, leading to regret. For instance, I recently read of a man in Arizona who walked by the cage of a poisonous snake in a zoo, and imitated the reptile’s stance by sticking his tongue out at it. In a flash the snake’s head darted through the cage bars and latched itself on the man’s offending muscular hydrostat—and he was in deep trouble.
In hockey there are far more injuries affecting this sensitive part of the anatomy than one might expect. One time Hartford Whaler’s team dentist said that during his tenure in this capacity, “fewer players are losing teeth these days….but what I see most is lacerations in and around the gums, TONGUE, and lips.”
On April 28, 1969, in a penalty-filled, rough and tumble affair against the Canadiens. Jim Roberts needed stitches in his tongue when he bit it during physical contact.
Six years later, in a Canucks match against the Red Wings, Detroit’s Phil Roberto hit
Vancouver’s Don Lever in the throat with his stick. As a result, Lever swallowed his tongue and required emergency attention.
A similar accident took place in February 1978, during the “Broad Street Bullies” era. The Washington Caps faced off against the Flyers in a penalty-filled clash. There were 15 majors handed down, with 124 minutes being assessed in total. D.C.’s rookie defenseman, Robert Picard got a violent introduction to the life in the Big Time, when he was the victim of one of the many clashes. Trainer “Gump” Embro had to rush onto the ice to treat him because he had swallowed his tongue.
One of the most gruesome incident relating to the tongue involved a conflict in a game between the IHL’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles and Denver. Stu Grimson had cross-checked Mark Janssens into the boards, causing his helmet to fly off. The victimized forward got up and wobbled toward the bench, only to be accosted by Martin Simard, who tried to goad him into a fight by slashing him. Instead, he fell to the ice with a seizure, swallowing his tongue. This caused his jaw to lock. Emergency attendants had to break some of his teeth to remove his tongue from his throat. Doug Soetaert, former NHL backstop and Denver Assistance Coach, said it was the most gruesome injury he had ever seen in pro hockey.
In March 2000, Scott Gomez bit off his tongue in practice, when Sheldon Souray’s stick came up and clipped him under the chin.. He required stitches but didn’t miss any games.
And in December 2007, Washington’s Craig MacDonald was hit in the mouth with a puck fired by the Leaf’s Hal Gill. He lost nine teeth, and took 50 stitches in the tongue, lips, and gums.
But there is another scenario which not only has resulted in bloody injuries to that little member, but actually INVITES this kind of hurts. There are a number of NHL’ers who have, or do, participate in the game action with their tongue sticking out.
Tomas Holmstrom, former hotshot forward of the Detroit Red Wings, skated with his tongue sticking out. He admitted that people tell him all the time, “You’ve got your tongue out”, when they saw him playing on TV or in pictures. When interviewed by Bob Duff of the Windsor Star, who also questioned him about the habit, he responded: “It’s not something I’m conscious of when I am playing. I can’t ever remember biting my tongue or anything like that in a game!”
Jeff Daniels, who is now an assistant coach with Carolina Hurricanes, claimed he was “not guilty” of this idiosyncrasy when he skated in the NHL—although photos prove he has a bad memory. But, he admitted doing as a boy, while he was running, not skating.
Mark Hunter, one of three brothers from Petrolia, Ontario, who made it to the Big Time, agreed that he used to practice this stance in the heat of action.
Kirk Muller, now head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes, resorted to this fixation particularly on face-offs during his playing days.
When Esa Tikkanen took the position of playing coach for a South Korea team called “Halla”, the announcement added: “….who stuck his tongue out for two decades with Edmonton and the New York Rangers”.
Al Iafrate, Brad Marchand, Petr Svoboda, Wojtek Wolski, and James van Riemsdyk have also been caught on camera with this fleshy anatomical part protruding between their lips.
The most frequent candid shots of this kind belong to none other than last season’s Hart Trophy winner, Alexander Ovechkin. He is often referred to as “wagging his tongue” in action. When questioned about this habit he explained that his mother, who was a champion Olympian basketball player, displayed this idiosyncrasy when she earned medals in 1976 and 1980.
While Daniels may not have admitted to this practice, and Holmstrom could not recall ever being injured because of his habit, there are at least four NHL’ers from the past who could not avoid accidents when they played—who should have practiced “tongue in check”!
The first recorded instance of a mishap of this sort took place in 1923. Dick Irvin Sr., who is probably remembered better for his NHL coaching exploits than his playing days, was a member of the Regina Capitals of the old Western Canada (Pro) League at the time. One of his archrivals was “Cully” Wilson of the Calgary Tigers, one of the dirtiest skaters ever to pull on a major league uniform. Wherever he played he set records for penalty minutes. His first season in the Pacific Coast gained him the distinction of earning 40 percent of his team’s penalty minutes. In fact it was written of him “his rough tactics and brawling were an embarrassment to the league”. When he broke an opposition player’s jaw with a vicious crosscheck he was suspended for the remainder of that campaign!
So, it was not surprising that when he and Irvin collided at centre ice one night, Wilson jammed his stick under Dick’s jaw. His victim had the dangerous habit of skating with his tongue stuck out between his teeth. As a result Wilson’s stick drove Irvin’s teeth through his tongue, causing the blood to flow freely! While the assailant made his way to the penalty box, the Regina trainer tried to get Irvin to go to the dressing room—but he would have none of that. When the official dropped the puck to resume play, Dick skated directly to the sin bin and laid a two-hander over Cully’s head. This time it was HIS blood that flowed.
Amazing as it may sound, the two became teammates with the Blackhawks in the late 1920’s. Not only that, but on road trips they were roommates. What happened in the heat of the moment was forgotten.
A similar tale emanates from the same league one year later. Before becoming part of the New York Rangers, a marriage that lasted 29 years, Frank Boucher skated for the Vancouver Maroons. Against those same Calgary Tigers one night, he tried to lift defenseman Herb Gardiner’ stick to snag the puck. His own stick accidentally flew up and hit Gardiner in the face, opening a small cut. Boucher, who was known for his clean play—in fact he won the original Lady Byng Trophy seven years out of eight in the 1920’s—apologized for the mistake.
But big Herb was not impressed. He swore to get even. Mickey Ion, one of the most celebrated referees in shinny history, saw the whole thing and overheard the threat.
So, at the ensuing face-off he gave Boucher a sly wink, and dropped the puck in such a manner that Frank easily won the draw. Seeing that Gardiner meant to retaliate right there and then, the slim pivot pushed the puck through the rearguard’s feet, and followed through with his body, knocking him flat on his back. Ion blew the whistle and gave Gardiner a penalty for charging! This was followed by another sly wink!
Mr. Herb didn’t forget that easily. A few weeks later he got even—in spades! In a return match in the Stampede City, as the game was winding down, the nimble Boucher tried to hurdle between Gardiner and his blueline partner, “Red” Dutton. It turned out to be déjà vu in reverse. This time big Herb attempted to lift Frank’s stick off the puck. Again it slipped—this time hitting Boucher square in the mouth. The result of the impact was complicated because the future Ranger frequently skated with his tongue between his teeth. The horn sounded to end the match just at that moment. But while the game ended, misery had just begun for Frank. He headed straight for the locker room searching for the doctor, but discovered he had already left the building.
As it turned out he had bitten his tongue almost in two. The Vancouver goalie, Hugh Lehman, accompanied Boucher to their hotel room and called a doctor. What followed is not for the faint-hearted to read. Lehman had to hold Frank’s tongue out as far as possible with tweezers while the medic stitched it back together. Boucher recalled later that it was the most painful injury he ever experienced—but wasn’t sure who sweat more during the repairs—himself or Hughie, the unwilling doctor’s assistant.
Almost two decades would pass before another big time puckster would imitate these unusual tragedies. In the January 20, 1945 Globe & Mail, Sport’s Editor Vern DeGeer reported Harold “Mush” March’s misfortune, which happened the night before. Even as he penned his piece the diminutive Chicago forward was beginning his week’s respite in a Toronto hospital. It was bad enough that the Hawk’s had lost the game 8-4 to the Leafs—but now they were without their slick forward as well.
Harold "Mush" March
DeGeer remarked that he had always been nervous about the way March skated with his tongue out—“like a panting dog”, as he put it. Shortly after scoring one of the Windy City’s markers late in the second period, someone bumped him, causing his teeth to sink deeply into his tongue. It was a tragic-comical sight. He couldn’t talk at all. He could only communicate with sign language or in writing. He recovered rather quickly from this fluke accident, but Dr. Bob Galloway who attended him said that it was the worst injury he had seen, apart from a broken leg, in all his years as a physician at Maple Leaf Gardens. He told “Mush” that he would be ready for action in a week if infection didn’t set in. March bore that unusual nickname, by the way, having been tagged with the moniker borne by a character in the old Dick Tracey comic strip.
Even with all the high tech equipment in place to protect the modern NHLer, helmets and mouth guards especially, skaters are not immune to freak injuries. On May 8, 1989, Calgary’s Joe Nieuwendyk took a page out of shinny’s history by duplicating the mishap experienced by Irvin, Boucher, and March. The Calgary sextet narrowly defeated the Blackhawks in the fourth game of the Campbell Conference finals that night, to the tune of 2-1. But the two-time 50-goal scorer was hurting, big time. His lips were swollen; his speech was marred by an unnatural lisp. One newspaper columnist remarked that he looked like he had just gone 15 rounds in a prizefight.
At the eighth minute of the second period, he took a stick in the mouth from defenseman Steve Konroyd that almost severed his tongue! Nieuwendyk had been leaning forward to take a pass from teammate Haken Loob, because the puck was a little too far in front of him. As he did so, Konroyd’s blade almost snipped his tongue in two. Joe had the tendency in full stride to skate with this appendage sticking out between his lips, as if he were gasping for air! This time the results of a seemingly innocent practice were disastrous. Initially it felt a couple of teeth hanging loose from his mouth—but it was actually the end of his tongue. “Bearcat” Murray, the Flame’s trainer, did his best to stop the flow of blood—and eventually the Calgary medical team managed to sew the mangled member back together! Unbelievably, the gutsy centre returned to action after repairs. Ordinarily he would have opted out—but it was the playoffs—and true to hockey traditions, this brave competitor played hurt.
It is to be hoped that down the road—a week, a month, or a year from now—we don’t read about James van Riemsdyk, Brad Marchand, or Alex Ovechkin being the next victim of a failing to keep the tongue in check!
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