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Hockeytown Doc: A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman

Hockeytown Doc: A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman

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by Dr. John Finley, Gordie Howe (Foreword by)

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Reflecting on nearly five decades with the Detroit Red Wings, Dr. John Finley takes sports fans far beyond closed doors and into the trainer’s room where cuts were bandaged, broken noses were reset, sore muscles were rubbed out, and casts made for broken bones. In this stellar memoir, Dr. Finley recounts his experiences with the stars on the revitalized Red


Reflecting on nearly five decades with the Detroit Red Wings, Dr. John Finley takes sports fans far beyond closed doors and into the trainer’s room where cuts were bandaged, broken noses were reset, sore muscles were rubbed out, and casts made for broken bones. In this stellar memoir, Dr. Finley recounts his experiences with the stars on the revitalized Red Wings franchise in recent years, including Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom, as well as heroes of previous generations, including 1972 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Gordie Howe. Along the way, Dr. Finley shares some of the most vivid accounts ever written on the subject of sports injuries, including the hundreds of stitches he applied to Borje Salming’s face after it was cut by Gerard Gallant’s errant skate blade, as well as his recommendation on the knee injury sustained by a young Steve Yzerman that ultimately helped maintain his Hall of Fame career.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Hockeytown Doc is various parts Dr. Finley's life story, Red Wings history, entertaining lore, medical memoir, coverage of the game's evolution, and essay on the current state of the game … To a Red Wings fan, this book is a great addition to a literary collection.” — "Winging It In Motown," a Red Wings blog affiliated with SB Nation

“You don’t need to be a Red Wings fan to enjoy Hockeytown Doc … [it is] richly illustrated with dozens of photos spanning the decades … entertaining and recommended.” —TheHockeyWriters.com

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Triumph Books
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Hockeytown Doc

A Half-Century of Red Wings Stories from Howe to Yzerman

By John Jack Finley

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2012 Dr. John Finley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61749-995-1


1. A Stitch in Time

Borje Salming took nearly 300 stitches to his face when it was carved open at Joe Louis Arena.

For years, the word around North American hockey circles was that European hockey players, used to playing in the longer and wider ice rinks, would never thrive in the hard-hitting and checking game played predominantly by North Americans in the National Hockey League.

Borje Salming, a Swedish import known to his legion of fans as "The King," was the first great exception to this way of thinking. Playing most of his career with the Maple Leafs, he suffered more than the average number of serious injuries, scored more than the average number of points, and led the way for future Swedes with his toughness as well as his prowess with the puck.

But one morning, Borje woke up in a Detroit hotel room and was nearly moved to tears by what he saw in the mirror.

"Oh, my God," he said to himself. "Am I going to look like this for the rest of my life?"

It was Thanksgiving morning, and I can assure you that just hours earlier, holding a white towel crimson with blood from a laceration that ran the length of the right side of his face, he looked much, much worse.

Facial lacerations are some of the most common injuries in hockey, and were far more prevalent during the Original Six era and the first waves of expansion, before helmets and visors became more common.

Ironically, Salming had been experimenting with wearing a visor in the days and weeks prior to this injury. He had worn one a week earlier after taking a few stitches above his eyebrow, but discarded it after a few practices.

As he explains it in his book, Blood Sweat and Hockey, the incident that led to his horror in front of the mirror occurred during a goalmouth scramble in the Toronto goal. Salming was where he was supposed to be, in the area around the crease, defending his goaltender, when he fell to the ice on his back. In the chaos that ensued, Detroit's gritty left winger Gerard Gallant was pushed from behind, and his skate came down on Salming's face.

"The cold steel sliced the skin above my right eye, then cut deeply into my nose and along the side of my face," Salming wrote. "It's odd, but there was no more pain than cutting a finger with a sharp knife. I knew that something serious had happened, but the cut was so fast and clean, it didn't hurt. I got up on my own and skated off the ice. When I reached our bench, my knees buckled and the other players had to help me lie down.

"The trainer, Guy Kinnear, tried to stop the bleeding with a towel, but the blood soaked right through."

It was a gruesome sight. My family and I had seats at Joe Louis arena just three rows up behind the Detroit bench, and I immediately got up and went to the Toronto bench where Salming lay with a Zorro-like "Z" laceration extending from his upper forehead, down adjacent to his right eye, within a millimeter of the inferior puncta tear duct opening, inferiorly through all the muscles of his cheek to the right corner of his mouth.

"Get more towels," Kinnear was screaming.

Continuing to apply pressure, we took him into their medical room and applied even more pressure with surgical sponges and sterile towels. But the blood continued to soak right through. This is the only injury that I can ever recall dealing with that I couldn't control the bleeding with simple pressure.

Hockey players take immense pride in their ability to sustain a cut, get into the medical room to be stitched up, and return to the ice, sometimes without missing a shift. Borje Salming was done for the night, and — as he would come to wonder for himself — there would be some doubt about whether he would ever even look the same again.

"Let's get him to the hospital," I said, and we alerted the operating room at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, transported him by gurney to the waiting ambulance while I maintained pressure on the massive facial laceration, and we were at the hospital within five minutes.

On the way, Borje was concerned, and asked how bad it was.

"This isn't serious," I assured him. "You'll be all right."

As hockey injuries go, it wasn't particularly serious because it was controllable and repairable. But it certainly looked bad.

On arrival to the hospital, he was taken to the operating room and given IV sedation by our anesthesiologist, Mark Grant, D.O. Local anesthesia was administered to the entire wound area. The bleeding was now under control, the puncta and nasolacrimal duct probed by ophthalmologist Glen Hatcher, D.O., who found no serious damage. My greatest concern was regarding visible facial nerve branches, so the laceration was carefully repaired in layers, approximating each muscle group.

Borje was awake, but sedated, during the entire procedure. After about 90 minutes, he looked up through the surgical drapes and sutures and asked, "Almost done?"

"Young man," I told him, "we've just passed second base."

Three hours and nearly 300 stitches later, the bleeding was controlled, the laceration closed, and the wound nicely approximated. In the quietude of the operating theater in the early morning hours, Borje asked again about the injury, and I told him I was very satisfied with the closure of the laceration. However, it would take days and weeks before we know the final result because of the potential nerve damage.

We left the hospital, and I drove Borje to his hotel, where he could get a few hours sleep before rising to peek into that mirror. As he describes it in his book, "Black threads poked out everywhere and my hair was matted with blood. I showered for a long time, watching the blood disappear down the drain. The shower made me feel better, I even looked slightly better without all the dried blood. The doctor had done a fine job."

He phoned his wife, Margita, refusing to give her many details about the injury but trying to prepare her nonetheless. At Detroit's Metro Airport, Salming hid behind a newspaper to shield himself against the gawkers.

Salming returned to Toronto the next morning with his team. Dr. Leith Douglas, Toronto's team physician and distinguished plastic surgeon, examined Borje, checking his facial expressions and taking a series of photos. He was very pleased with the result, telling me later he was most impressed that the facial expressions were maintained. Gradually, as the wound healed and the swelling receded, the facial expressions returned, the redness disappeared, and, considering the natural deep furrows in his face, the scars blended well and were barely visible.

"It was difficult for a long time, but eventually we realized that the doctor had done a superb job," Salming said in his book. "The red snake of a scar became smaller and smaller until it disappeared altogether. Dr. Finley, quite simply, had done wonderful work."

So Borje, a Maple Leafs great and favorite with Toronto fans, was pleased with the result — and therefore I was also. And for someone who had been stubbornly opposed to visors because they periodically fogged up, he wore one from that time on.

A few years later, Borje signed as a free agent with our club in Detroit. The first thing I did was to inspect the injury. I was interested in any areas of numbness, which would have indicated a loss of sensation. There was none. Everything was intact. There appeared to no abnormal residual defect.

We also had a chance to take more follow-up photos. I always marvel at the remarkable healing power of these wonderful world-class athletes.

As a bit of a postscript to this story, I ran into Gerard Gallant when he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of teammate Bob Probert. Gerry told me he had no idea that it was his skate that caused that injury until one of his teammates told him it did. He then had to watch the replay to verify it for himself, and indeed it showed another player pushing him into Salming. Gerry recalled a trip to Sweden years later, when he competed in the World Championship tournament. There on the wall of the corridor of the arena in Sweden where they were playing was a poster-sized-picture of the injured Salming — and one of Gerard Gallant, the culprit. But everyone nonetheless treated him very respectfully there.

* * *

The team medical staff always has repair materials ready to proceed with suturing the laceration, particularly for gaping wounds. In the 1950s, if the wounds were relatively small, we would repair them without local anesthesia, feeling there was a degree of injury numbness associated with each that remained during the repair. By the '60s, we always had local anesthesia ready and proceeded to localize the wound once antisepticising and surgically prepping the wound were complete. The diagnosis had to be made quickly and accurately. With visiting teams usually leaving right after the game, we would give the trainer a report to present to the team physician back home or, if the injury was significant, we would call the team physician directly. As worries about HIV and bloody exposure of wounds to others occurred, immediate sterile repair was necessary as well as gloved protection of any medical person when examining any injured player.

In many sports, a player sustaining a laceration might be out a day or two. In hockey, it is repair them and return them to play. The number of facial lacerations seen in hockey during the Original Six days until headgear became mandatory was likely the most common injury seen at that time. It was rare to have a game in which some sort of laceration repair was not required. As a consequence, we always had a sterile covered laceration tray ready to go into action at a moment's notice at every game. One might wonder how safely accomplishing this work in an arena atmosphere without serious complications of infection, hemorrhage, or wound disruption could occur. There are a number of ways to approach that issue, considering the number of unrelated events taking place there, such as circuses, rock concerts, fights, rodeos, and more.

All players who have risen to the NHL level of hockey are aware that because of the physical and violent nature of the game, injuries can and do occur. And undergoing repair and playing over them is commonplace so as not to lose one's place on the team's roster. Players fall in the class of young, healthy individuals who respond quickly to injury. On the average, hockey players shower at least once a day and frequently more than that, so that in spite of their ever-present perspiration, once their wound is surgically prepared and draped, accomplishing effective repair is the rule, particularly when working in concert with competent dental specialists.

Initiating effective surgical debridement and repair immediately, before serious swelling takes place, is usually rewarded with a very favorable result. The surgeon repairing these wounds must have a broad knowledge of the anatomic structures so that any injury more complicated than a superficial repair would need careful evaluation and restoring all anatomic structures to permit effective avoidance of disabling or disfiguring scars.

* * *

Not all injuries occur during a game. An example of this was when Greg Smith, then a young defenseman for the Wings, and Walt McKechnie were playing one-on-one before practice. Walt tried to go through Greg and was succeeding according to Walt. So Greg did what all defenseman are trained to do at that moment: he took down his man. The two of them crashed into the goal, which was secured to the ice surface by a 16" lead pipe. Walt's skate flew up and cut Greg's face at the corner of his right eye.

I was in the operating room at the time, finishing a major surgical case. The OR supervisor came into my surgical suite to tell me that Wings trainer Lefty Wilson was on the phone with an emergency. As soon as I picked up the phone, Lefty said, "Doc, I've got a bad one." He immediately sent Greg up to D.O.H., where he was wheeled into a very hectic surgical ward where the day's busy schedule was interrupted for this emergency.

Like the Salming injury, Greg had suffered a serious laceration close to the eye. His was a stellate laceration at the corner of his eye, passing within an eyelash of the puncta. That area of the injury was examined and probed by our ophthalmologist, Dr. Patrick Murray, D.O., the hospital's Chief of Ophthalmology, who found everything intact. No ocular defect had occurred, and there was less deformity to the muscular structure than the Salming injury. But Greg's laceration damaged the very fragile tissue around the eye, which made it that much more difficult to repair. We used a very fine suture to close the injury. The result was remarkably good in this healthy player.

Repairing these injuries almost immediately after they occur allows careful, precise approximation before much swelling or distortion occurs. We had sequential pictures of his injury on the wall of our office. When Steve Yzerman stopped by our office shortly after he joined the Wings, he admired the pictures, inspecting them closely. The next time we played Washington, the team to which Greg had been traded, Steve made a point to get a closer look at Greg's face to check for himself that there had even been an injury. Greg had healed nicely, with minimal noticeable scarring.

* * *

Another gruesome injury occurred early in the first period of an exhibition game against Philadelphia before the 2000–01 season, when defenseman Eric Desjardins took a slap shot from one of his own players directly in the center of his mouth. He came off the ice and went to the visitors' dressing room. We rushed to the room, as well, arriving the same time the player arrived — just in time to see him swing his stick like a baseball bat and hit the 25-gallon Gatorade cooler, causing a flood on the dressing-room floor.

Our dentist, Dr. Chet Regula, and I immediately surveyed the damage — to the player. Eric had suffered a crushing injury to his mouth, losing his four upper front teeth (two of which were artificial) and four lower front teeth. He also suffered extensive soft-tissue lacerations, several through and through. We initially repaired the soft-tissue injury to help control the bleeding and normalize the anatomy. Then Dr. Regula attended to the broken teeth, doing an on-the-spot root canal on one, filing the ragged edges on others, and extracting the broken artificial ones. After 11/2 hours of procedures in the visitors' dressing room while the game was still going on, our work was completed.

Remarkably, and so indicative of the classy nature of players in the NHL, the first thing Eric Desjardins did was thank us for our work in a very grateful manner rather than running to the mirror to inspect the injury and the repair. The Flyers were in Detroit again three weeks later for a regular season game, and we had a chance to inspect our work that turned out very well. Again, Eric came to find us to express his appreciation.

Hockey players. They're special people, and they deserve our very best.

The NHL Team Physicians Society has been continuously concerned about the increasing number of facial injuries and is an outspoken advocate for the use of visors. These visors will not eliminate facial injuries, but they will reduce them immeasurably and in many cases, because of the protection they provide, reduce the severity of many injuries like Borje Salming's and Greg Smith's. Though it would require the approval of the NHLPA to institute such a rule, I would urge the league to continue pressing for it to protect these marvelous athletes.


2. Vengeance Is Theirs

Claude Lemieux and the Colorado Avalanche would pay for rearranging Kris Draper's smile.

Kris Draper is one of the most resilient and popular players I have ever seen. Hockey fans in Detroit have a warm spot in their hearts for most players who wear the winged wheel, but few men enjoyed the appreciation and respect of the fans, the media — and his own teammates — more than Kris.

And perhaps no one played a more pivotal role in the development of a franchise intent on ending a Stanley Cup drought that had entered its fifth decade.


Excerpted from Hockeytown Doc by John Jack Finley. Copyright © 2012 Dr. John Finley. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. John Finley served as team physician for the Detroit Red Wings from 1957 to 2003 and is the former president of the American College of Osteopathic Surgeons. He lives in Detroit, Michigan. Gordie Howe is a former NHL and WHA player. He is a four-time Stanley Cup champion and the recipient of six Art Ross Trophies, six Hart Trophies, and the first NHL Lifetime Achievement Award. He lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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