NHL's gap-toothed badges of courage
Losing teeth is a sign of toughness in the NHL and considered "just another battle wound"
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Last year, in his 16th NHL season, Jaromir Jagr sat on a bench in the New York Rangers' locker room taking inventory.
"Broken skate, broken glove, broken teeth — what a night," he said, blood caked on his cheeks.
Jagr had scored the winning goal but lost his teeth, or rather, the bridge that once held them. All was not lost, though.
"It's Halloween tomorrow," he said. "I don't have to buy a mask."
Every day is Halloween in the NHL. With stick-wielding skaters jousting for position amid volleys of 100-mph pucks, it's a law of the jungle — and physics — that someone's pumpkin will get carved. Tooth loss comes with the rugged territory. It's not a matter of if someone will spit Chiclets, but how many shifts he will miss.
"All your battles make you a little bit tougher in the long run," says Dallas Stars forward Steve Ott, who once damaged three of his choppers on the back of an opponent's helmet. "Losing teeth, that's just another battle wound. The next hit makes you a little uglier and a little meaner."
The path to Lord Stanley's Cup is lined with incisors, bicuspids and molars. A gap-toothed smile is a badge of courage.
Former Flyers captain Bobby Clarke epitomized that look during the Broad Street Bullies' dominant run in the 1970s. Stars coach Dave Tippett patterned his scrappy game after Clarke's, and scattered similar amounts of enamel on rinks throughout southeastern Saskatchewan. He loved the smell of Novocain in the morning.
"I lost mine at 8 years old," Tippett said, proudly. "I had the nickname Beaver when I was growing up. I don't think I ever played a professional game with my front teeth. It was good for breathing."
The Bobby Clarke look is still around, but it's less visible these days.
Most of today's players were required to wear mouth guards as juniors. Protective devices have improved through the years. Advances in dentistry, particularly with implants, have made it easier to fill gaps. And modern players are more inclined to repair teeth for cosmetic reasons than the old-timers were.
Former Dallas Star B.J. Crombeen goes commando with his grillwork. Crombeen, now a member of the St. Louis Blues, lost a front tooth in a fight during his first minor-league season. A post was inserted, so he can get an implant when he retires.
"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be," Crombeen said recently, smiling. "I got pretty lucky. It was a clean pop-out. I wasn't wearing a mouth guard at the time, but I make sure I have it in all the time now."
During last season's playoffs, Crombeen was playing shinny after practice. He tried to slide the puck past assistant coach Mark Lamb, but it deflected off Lamb's stick, caroming into his mouth for a tooth fairy hat trick.
Lamb, a 20-year NHL veteran, had to replace three front teeth that had replaced previous replacements. After three sets of implants, there's not much to work with.
"I've spent a lot of time in the dentist's chair, and I think it's one of the worst injuries you could ever get," Lamb said. "When you have implants and the posts move, it fractures the bone in your gum. I had to have surgery and it took three months to heal."
Most current players, especially enforcers, wear mouth guards. But the strongest mouth guard cannot withstand a speeding puck or an errant stick.
Three of injured Stars captain Brenden Morrow's teeth were damaged by a stick several years ago. He lost one, which he replaced with an implant, and the other two were bridged.
"I had a mouth guard on, too," Morrow said. "Three of them got bent in, so they put like a fake bonding in there and pushed them back."
Two days after he said that, Morrow took a puck to the mouth, loosening some of his front teeth.
Tippett finally replaced his plate with permanents about four years ago. He doesn't begrudge the young guys their cosmetic enhancements. But he has fond memories of bonding with toothless peers such as former Hartford Whalers teammate Joel Quenneville, now coach of the Chicago Blackhawks.
"We'd be on the ice laughing together," Tippett said, "spraying water on the ice."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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