There are 26 bones in a human foot, and hockey players will tell you a puck travelling at the speed of pain is sure to find most of them at one time or another.
Just ask Jay Pandolfo of the New York Islanders or any one on a growing list of foot-stricken NHL players – Ville Leino of the Buffalo Sabres, Nik Antropov of the Winnipeg Jets, Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Devante Smith-Pelly of the Anaheim Ducks (hurt while playing for Canada at the 2012 world junior tournament), to name but a few.
While concussions have dominated the game's attention – and rightly so – more and more players have taken a puck off a skate and found themselves hobbled for weeks. The exact number of foot fallen is hard to pin down since many teams classify their injuries by region – upper body, lower body – or by insisting it was a pre-existing condition complicated by a bone bruise, à la James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But more than a dozen players have been officially downed by a foot ailment and the wondering is, why exactly is that?
Is it because bigger, stronger players are using composite sticks and shooting harder than ever before? Is it because more players now measure their worth via shots blocked, welts received? Or are not enough players wearing some sort of guard to protect the instep and middle part of the foot?
The fact most players don't wear any kind of foot protection (beyond defencemen using ankle guards) is a significant contributor as much as something of a mystery. Some players who have tried guards over the top of their skates don't like the feel of them. Others say they hardly notice they're wearing them. One thing is certain: Half the Montreal Canadiens' lineup believes in them, especially defenceman P.K. Subban.
He took a screaming one-timer off the top of his foot from Washington Capital Alexander Semin last year and saw the puck fly "right up into the stands, probably 15 rows back. I was down on the ice. I couldn't feel my foot."
"When I went back into the room, all the bones on my foot were like this," Subban said, making a steeple with his fingers. "I would have broken my foot for sure if I wasn't wearing [a guard] The pressure made the bones come up. They had to crunch my bones back into place. They told me if I hadn't been wearing them I'd have been out six weeks."
The Canadiens began equipping their players with protective foot guards in 2009 at the encouragement of Bob Gainey, then the general manager. An orthopedic/orthotics outfit in Saint-Laurent, Que., produces the custom-made shields, which are also used by several Montreal forwards. Other NHL teams are now calling and asking how to best protect their players.
"I can't recall using extra protection when I played," said Edmonton Oilers scout Frank Musil, a former NHL defenceman. "If you got hurt, the trainers would make you a custom brace and you'd wear it until you didn't need it any more. Now I see guys in junior wearing covers on their skates in practice. The last thing you want to do is get hurt in practice."
When Lawrence Parrott took a shot off his foot playing in a men's recreational league in Minnedosa, Man., he had to walk on crutches for weeks. Suitably inspired, he came up with his own version of a guard called SPATS skate armour. The idea, he said, wasn't for the big-money pros; it was meant to protect kids and people who play the game for fun and can't afford to be off their feet for long.
"I'm involved in minor hockey and I see kids limping around," said Parrott, whose protective cover can be removed if the skate laces need tightening. "It happens at all levels. People just disregard protection for the foot and they shouldn't."
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal