By Adam Hoge-
CHICAGO (CBS) — The word “insane” comes to mind frequently when you hear about the injuries hockey players play through during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That word also fits every time you see a hockey player throw his body in front of a puck traveling more than 100 miles per hour.
Now, meet Niklas Hjalmarsson, the smart, down-to-earth defenseman on the Chicago Blackhawks.
Off the ice, you would never use the word “insane” to describe him.
On the ice, however?
Hjalmarsson leads all players in the playoffs with 42 blocked shots — a remarkable accomplishment considering he used his throat to block a shot against the Minnesota Wild on May 4.
That shot left Hjalmarsson with temporarily damaged vocal cords and gasping for air as he struggled to breathe.
“It was pretty scary once it happened,” Hjalmarsson said Monday, the first day he was cleared by doctors to speak since the incident. “It was tough to breathe there for a couple minutes. I was just glad that I recovered quick, and once I figured out that I was able to breathe, it was a big relief.”
Ah, the mind of a hockey player. Oh, I can breathe? Gotta get back on the ice.
Hjalmarsson didn’t miss a shift. Nevermind that he couldn’t talk. As long as he could breathe, he could play.
And that’s been the mindset for the last two weeks, as doctors told him not to use his voice — on or off the ice.
“Don’t talk unless it makes you money, (the doctor) told me,” Hjalmarsson said.
Off the ice, it wasn’t that hard for the defenseman, who carries a quiet demeanor in the locker room. On the ice, however, Hjalmarsson is a screamer, and that wasn’t easy.
“It was pretty tough in the beginning,” Hjalmarsson said. “I’m a guy that talks a lot on the ice, especially with my D-partner, screaming at him, screaming at my teammates sometimes, too. So I think for some of the forwards, they were pretty happy with me not being able to talk for some time. As far as (defense partner Johnny Oduya), he’s pretty happy that I can be able to communicate again.”
Then again, Hjalmarsson did do some talking on the ice. He could be seen on television screaming a few times, and his voice was also picked up on a few of the microphones near the ice surface.
“I really tried my best,” he said. “Obviously, a couple sentences here and there I managed to squeeze in. I think I did a pretty good job.”
Voice or no voice, Hjalmarsson hasn’t shied away from throwing his body in front of the puck. He’s been ordered to wear a neck guard, something he’ll continue to wear — not by choice, of course.
And all those blocked shots? He downplayed the skill it takes to be a good shot blocker.
“I don’t really see it as a special skill,” he said. “It’s just a matter of desperation to try to do everything you can to prevent the other team from scoring goals. But every guy in this league can block shots if they want to.”
Certainly a big part of it is a mental willingness — or insanity — but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville thinks there’s some skill involved, too.
“Knowing that when you’re close enough to the puck it’s a likelihood of hitting you in a more favorable place,” Quenneville said. “It can prevent serious injuries and self-inflicted wounds for that matter. Certain guys are more willing than others, but there’s anticipating when the shot is going to be made.”
Hjalmarsson’s anticipation is among the best in the league, and even though he can be seen frequently hobbling to bench after absorbing the puck all over his body, he has managed to avoid serious injury.
Of course, the defenseman realizes blocking shots with his throat is probably not a good idea going forward.
“Yeah, I guess I was pretty lucky,” Hjalmarsson said. “I’m just glad to be able to talk again and can’t wait to get rid of that neck guard I’m still wearing.”
So to recap: took puck off throat, couldn’t breathe, damaged vocal cords, can’t wait to get rid of neck guard.
What’s that word again? Insane.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears and Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.