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NHL unlikely to get closer to ending little disclosure on injuries

by | CBSSports.com

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, encircled by reporters earlier this week, was asked about a dozen different ways why star forward Alexander Ovechkin will be out of the lineup up to 10 days.

"He's sore," Boudreau smirked. "You guys are trying."

Boudreau, under NHL rules, doesn't have to be any more specific, although some teams offer up vague descriptions -- usually "upper body" and "lower body" -- to explain why a player is sidelined. This hazy area of injury reporting, in place mostly so players' injuries aren't targeted on the ice, is allowed to persist for one major reason: sports betting.

Coach Bruce Boudreau says Alex Ovechkin is 'sore,' but is that really true? (Getty Images)  
Coach Bruce Boudreau says Alex Ovechkin is 'sore,' but is that really true? (Getty Images)  
That's what pressured the nation's major contact sports league, the NFL, to institute a weekly injury report in 1947, a year after a betting scandal. Odds maker Danny Sheridan says since relatively little is bet on hockey -- either legally in Las Vegas or in the shadows elsewhere -- there's little chance any insider information could sway the line.

"The NFL doesn't want a situation where bettors would be approaching players like the old days," says Sheridan, who sets the betting lines for all major sports at USA TODAY. "Say somebody had information that Tom Brady wasn't going to play then all this money is bet on the Patriots' opponent. The NFL wanted to make it above board."

Sheridan says there's no such pressure on the NHL. The only recent betting scandal came when Rick Tocchet, an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes at the time, pleaded guilty to gambling charges in 2007 linked to his role in a betting ring that that took wagers from a handful of players and Janet Jones Gretzky, the wife of NHL great Wayne Gretzky. An investigation by the league found no evidence any money was wagered on NHL games.

That goes for the rest of the nation, Sheridan adds.

"Comparing the money bet on the NFL with NHL would be like comparing the New York Stock Exchange to the Guyana stock exchange," he says.

Reporters, through the Professional Hockey Writers Association and other entities, have pressed for more precise injury information for years. But minus that outside pressure, the NHL isn't likely to replace its current, ambiguous system for injury reporting.

All teams are required to release injuries during the regular season only if a player is expected to miss a game or not return to the game due to injury. The standards are a bit higher in the playoffs, according to NHL spokesman Frank Brown.

"When an injury occurs in a Stanley Cup playoff game, a club spokesperson must notify the media of the approximate location, nature and severity of an injury as soon as possible," Brown said.

But Brown noted one exception to that rule. Teams don't have to disclose an injury if releasing the information would "jeopardize the player's physical well-being if and when the player returns to play." The teams could interpret that fairly broadly, and teams might not want to, say, disclose a hand injury that could be zeroed in on by an opponent during the game.

"There's different ways that can manifest itself," says John Ferguson, the former Maple Leafs GM who currently scouts for the San Jose Sharks. "Sometimes there is an errant stick that 'accidently on purpose' hits a player in the general area of the injury."

Ferguson says this late in the season and into the playoffs, teams attempt to conceal any bump or bruise.

"I remember seeing guys tape up both wrists to make them look even," Ferguson says. "One playoff series when I was in Toronto, we didn't even want the other team's locker room attendant there when the players were around. We said, 'Thank you. We're good.' Then we had him sit out in the hallway until the players were out of the room. We brought our own team doctor on the road with us for the same reason."

Teams are not allowed to release misleading or false information to the media and team public relations staffs must receive an update on a player's injury status during the playoffs, according to Brown. Teams can be fined for not complying with the rule, although Brown said such fines are considered confidential and not released publicly.

Ferguson, however, said it's not unheard of for an injured ankle to be called a stomach virus.

"It's all part of that paranoid atmosphere," Ferguson said. "I think all the teams approach it the same way. That's one of the reasons why medical personnel are never made available to the media. It's about keeping those competitive secrets. The mentality of some organizations is that you do what needs to be done."


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