Skip to main content

In every sport, some reliable cliches continue to surface. Don’t make the first or third out at third base. Don’t leave your feet while defending. Goalkeepers shouldn’t be beaten at the near post. In the world of hockey, though, you’ll hear that NHL players are tough and can play through virtually any injury in pursuit of the Stanley Cup. On Tuesday, April 18, Morgan Barron backed that up.

During a net-mouth scrum, the Winnipeg Jets forward took an inadvertent skate to the face, which required 75 stitches. That didn’t stop him from returning to the game and being held up as the prototypical hockey player.

And while that might seem like a harmless viral story, things are less-than-ideal. Let’s break it down.

Morgan Barron and his 75 stitches are this year’s version of Gregory Campbell

While virtually every NHL postseason will feature examples of players persevering through injuries, few instances can top Gregory Campbell. In 2013, the then-Boston Bruins forward laid out to block a shot and, despite suffering what turned out to be a broken leg, finished his shift. Unsurprisingly, his coaches and teammates sang his praises, and Campbell became an example: That is what it means to be a hockey player chasing the Stanley Cup.

History tends to repeat itself, and that may have happened Tuesday night. As mentioned above, Morgan Barron took an accidental skate to the face and returned to the action after receiving 75 stitches. The reception to that feat was almost universally positive.

According to an ESPN write-up, Winnipeg head coach Rick Bowness “said he wasn’t surprised Barron re-entered the game and even marveled that he didn’t hesitate to get physical.” The bench boss also offered a direct quote on the topic.

“I think more his presence coming back because we all realized how bad it was, and that gave everyone a big boost,” Bowness added.

On social media, most posts focused on how Barron’s return was equally impressive and expected. It was a playoff game, after all, and a hockey player is going to do anything in their power to return to the action.

Yahoo Sports, for example, wrote that the forward simply was a “HOCKEY GUY.” Bleacher Report remarked that “Hockey players are DIFFERENT.” Other tweets compared Barron’s willingness to play to Zion Williamson’s injury record or joked about the percentage of dog in him.

But, despite that reception, it’s not all fun and games.

Playing through pain becomes dangerous when you make it a precedent

Before going any further, I want to establish a few caveats. First, I’m understandably impressed by Morgan Barron’s toughness. Secondly, I think that he handled the injury rather safely by returning to the ice with a full cage. And thirdly, I don’t harbor any ill will toward him in any way.

With all of that being said, though, holding him up as what a hockey player should be is a dangerous precedent.

Although it might seem subtle, there’s a difference between a player choosing to return to the game and feeling like they have to. And while it’s impossible to know what’s exactly happening in someone’s head at any given moment, these sorts of reactions plant seeds that will eventually blossom.

Consider Rick Bowness saying that he wasn’t surprised when Barron responded and appreciated his willingness to get physical. That underscores what every player already knows: A coach expects his squad to push through the pain and re-enter the fray.

That’s how you get players pushing to keep playing through concussions and all sorts of other injuries. This is a league, after all, with some pretty ineffective concussion spotters, which places an ever larger significance on players recognizing when they don’t feel right.

And at the risk of relying on the rhetorical “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” crutch, I’d also question the messages that are being sent on social media. If you see that hockey players are built differently and that returning after 75 stitches makes you a “hockey guy,” that’s going to inform the way you think about the game.

For a cross-sport parallel, let’s look at gymnastics. In 1996, Kerri Strug famously pushed through the pain en route to a gold medal. While that made her a national hero, it also ended her career.

While the initial parallel is obvious, there’s another connection to hockey. In 2018, the Associated Press interviewed 13 former US gymnasts and coaches. As laid out by NBC Los Angeles, those interviewees “described a win-at-all-cost culture rife with verbal and emotional abuse in which girls were forced to train on broken bones and other injuries.”

Beyond that, coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi’s “oppressive style created a toxic environment in which a predator like [Larry] Nassar was able to thrive, according to witness statements in Nassar’s criminal case and a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, the Karolyis, and others. Girls were afraid to challenge authority, Nassar was able to prey on vulnerable girls and, at the same time, he didn’t challenge the couple’s harsh training methods.”

Returning to hockey, the ice game’s culture is far from perfect. At its most benign, it encourages players to be boring and hide their personalities. At its worst, it covers up some truly awful behavior. And, like it or not, part of that culture is toughing out the pain to return to the ice.

To that end, I’ll return to how I started this second section. Is what Morgan Barron did on Tuesday night impressive? Of course. Was he within his rights to return to the game? Sure, assuming he wasn’t concussed or suffering from any larger issues. Did he have to return to the game? That’s where things get trickier. While no one had a gun to his head, it’s unlikely that anyone will reach the NHL without being so immersed in hockey that they know playing through the pain is the expectation rather than a choice.

And that’s where things get dangerous.


Connor Bedard May Be a Star, but He’s Powerless Against the Cold, Hard Truths of Hockey