Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Open Wide

Some of the most powerful images in hockey are those of injured players. A portrait of a scarred Terry Sawchuk or Borje Salming can send shivers down the spine of most fans. Then, there are the pictures of a gaped-tooth or toothless player, grinning from ear to ear. The classic photo in this regard is of Bobby Clarke when he played for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Well, as they as, "It is all fun and games until someone looses a tooth or an eye." In the early decades of NHL play, the mouth, face and head were the least protected area of a players body. As a result, the busiest member of a teams medical staff was the dentist.

In the early years of Detroit's (Cougars/Falcons/Red Wings) existence in the National Hockey League, this job fell to Dr. Charles E. Ballard. Taking into account the lack of facial equipment/protection, it is surprising Dr. Ballard had time for his other patients. He discussed his time with Detroit in a 1945 interview.

The player who took up much of Dr. Ballard's time was Harvey "Hard Rock" Rockburn. He was born on August 20, 1908 in Ottawa, Ontario. In October 1927, Rockburn signed with Stratford of the Canadian Professional Hockey League. However, he was quickly traded to the Detroit Olympics (CPHL). Here, he came under the watchful eye of Detroit's NHL team. His NHL career would begin in the 1929-30 season with the Detroit Cougars. Although he only appeared in 94 NHL regular season games, he certainly made an impact. Considered as being a hard-nosed defenceman, Rockburn often found himself in the penalty box. Described as stocky in nature, he played the game hard and wasn't afraid to stick his nose into the action. Or for that matter, his teeth.

"Rocky was good for two or three new plates a season. Alarmed at the cost of keeping Rocky's teeth in shape, Jack Adams once asked me if we couldn't arrange some sort of a flat rate for the season on the player" said Dr. Ballard.

Bill Cowley
 However, the Detroit player who suffered the most severe mouth injury was Bill Brydge. Like Rockburn, Brydge was a no-nonsense player who had no fear and wouldn't hesitate to go to battle. In one account of Brydge, he is described as the type of player who could give it to an opponent, but also take it from an opponent. And that is exactly what happened in a contest against the Boston Bruins. After an encounter with Eddie Shore, Brydge had lost 10 teeth!

The worst case that Dr. Ballard had to treat? That belonged to Bill Cowley of the Bruins. Cowley was a talented stick handler and play maker who won the Hart Trophy in 1941 and 1943. His play making skills are evident in the assists column of his statistics. In 13 NHL campaigns, he lead the league in assists 3 times. Ultimately, he broke Frank Boucher's all-time assist record in 1943-44.

One of the most difficult tasks for an opposing player was to take the puck away from Cowley. The only recourse was to play a physical game when matched against Cowley. Playing in Detroit, Cowley suffered a horrendous injury when winger Syd Howe applied his shoulder to Cowley's face. His jaw was fractured in 5 places and he lost a substantial amount of blood.

No wonder Dr. Ballard considers this as the most difficult case he treated while being Detroit's team dentist.

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