The 2020-21 Montreal Canadiens are one of the best stories in recent memory.
Battling through all the byproducts of a COVID-marred and shortened regular season, a team that finished just three games over .500 went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. They bowed out to the closest thing we have to a modern-day dynasty in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Looking back on it two years later, portrays it in a more bittersweet light. The run marked the end of three players’ NHL careers and to a degree, their livelihoods.
Future Hall of Fame goaltender Carey Price played through a knee injury on their postseason run. While his 12.3 goals saved above expected (via MoneyPuck) guided his team to some massive upsets, he’s played just five games since and is all but retired while still recovering from multiple procedures on his knee.
It also marked the true end to the career of the team’s captain, Shea Weber. The then-35-year-old played through multiple injuries during the team’s postseason run, but it was a lingering ankle issue that prevented him from returning to play.
While those two stories are well-known, the story of Paul Byron isn’t. The fan favorite missed nine games near the end of the regular season with a hip injury but returned to play just in time for Montréal’s playoff run to begin.
He would power through, recording three goals and three assists in 22 games as the Habs marched on through to the Final. The injury would eventually require surgery, however, which he had undergone during the offseason.
Byron played just 27 games before reaggravating the injury, unofficially ending his career.
That wear and tear over his 12-season NHL stint is still causing day-to-day issues for Byron despite not playing an NHL game in 14 months.
He told reporters on the Canadiens’ locker cleanout day this year there are still times when he can “barely walk for 30 or 45 minutes.”
The overwhelming public reaction to such a statement is often one of appreciation, awe, and gratitude for what the player has given to the game and his teammates. It’s a perception that deserves a challenge.
To challenge, you have to understand. So why do players make that sacrifice?
One prevailing reason is something Byron mentioned to The Athletic’s Arpon Basu in February 2022 shortly after beginning his final 27-game stint in the NHL. With severe, chronic injuries, there can be uncertainty about the length of recovery and degree of effectiveness of the procedure. It’s something that strikes doubt into both teams and players when discussing paths forward from injuries.
While not the principal cause of his day-to-day pain, Byron had a small labrum tear diagnosed when Montreal claimed him off waivers in 2015. It wasn’t fixed until his off-season hip surgery in 2021.
“It wasn't something they recommended to get surgery on because I mean, you never know after surgery,” Byron told Basu. “It’s always, is it going to fix it? Is it not going to fix it? It’s not this magic recipe where it’s guaranteed to work, and six months of rehab is no joke.”
The other main factor is the fear of being viewed as selfish for taking yourself out of the lineup to take time to heal. In such a heavily team-based sport, not squeezing every ounce out of yourself to help the team can be a cardinal sin for some.
Reason No. 1 is a valid concern to forego treatment, especially if a specific surgery carries quality-of-life risks outside of hockey. Reason No. 2, though, is where a paradigm shift needs to occur.
The struggles that many athletes face after retirement, not just in hockey, are well-documented. Over-exerting and exacerbating chronic injuries shorten careers and add to the many social and financial hurdles players face after their careers conclude.
Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog is in a similar situation after playing through a knee injury on his way to lifting the Stanley Cup in 2022. He’ll miss back-to-back seasons this year due to an additional surgery on his knee – this time, a cartilage transplant.
Landeskog may tell you playing through the injury was worth it – he won a Cup, after all. He didn’t speak publically much throughout the 2022-23 season while attempting to rehabilitate and get back into action for the team.
The reality stands, though, that Landeskog’s outcome is rare. One out of 32 teams wins a championship every year, and many more teams have players who sacrifice their longer-term health for a chance at winning.
It boils down to a single question: is a championship – nay, a chance at a championship – worth years of chronic pain? The culture that exists now says yes.
The fix to that, as with most things in this sport, is bettering the structure for inclusion in the sport. A wider variety of personalities and backgrounds inherently introduces new perspectives, which can shift the value system of an environment that glorifies sacrificial pain.
As that expectation fades, the sport will provide a more sustainable and accessible environment – tangibly growing the game.