Sometimes hockey players photographed in their hospital beds look as perfectly tragic as the legend that’s on the verge of overtaking the facts of their last days but hasn’t quite yet. Think of Howie Morenz peering out from swaddling sheets at Montreal’s Hôpital St-Luc: was there any other way that could have turned out?
That’s not Gerry Cheevers, seen here abed in 1978. If he looks uneasy it’s because he’s got a mealtime mouthful and no-one told him there were going to be pictures. Although, according to the caption that accompanied the photo when it appeared in a Boston paper, there might be another explanation: the Bruins goalie is, quote, pondering the possible end of his hockey season.
It was the second time that years that he’d hurt his right knee. Earlier, in the fall, he’d missed 21 games with stretched ligaments, reduced to watching his team play on TV in the company of a knee-injured ex-teammate by the name of Bobby Orr. He’d come back but now, February, with Boston hosting Colorado, the Rockies’ Joe Contini rammed him, tearing Cheevers’s anterior cruciate ligament while adding insult: Contini scored.
That hockey players end up in hospital beds isn’t in itself surprising: the toll that the game takes is no news. What takes some getting used to is the regularity with which photographers have found their way, through the years, into the wards harbouring hockey’s hurts. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to. Hard to say whether that has to do with modern mores or the rules governing hospital privacy having grown more stringent. Are we less willing now to witness the damage that the game does?
Those who make of a study of hockey players photographed in hospital beds will tell you that it’s rare enough to catch a player at mealtime. Not to say it never happens, just that a visiting-hours setting is much the more common. The more optimistic, too, you’d have to say: with family and friends standing by, players tend to look happier and healthier, much nearer to leaping up and back on the ice than poor, pondering Gerry Cheevers imprisoned behind crutches as he surveys the disheartening spread of mystery meat that constitutes his supper.
He did get back to his crease, as it turns out, before the year was out. That same spring he helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup finals – though they lost, there, to Montreal. Cheevers was back in Massachusetts General in the summer for surgery on the knee. It was doing fine right up until August when, at home, he missed a step and (as the Bruins’ physical therapist put it) “something gave way.” There’s probably a photograph of that hospital visit, too, somewhere, but I’ve never seen it.