Philadelphia sports fans love blood and guts, but they're not so fussy about teeth.
The on-rushing gunner has cranked up a warp-speed slap shot and the puck, a frozen rubber bullet, is zeroed in and dead on, with nothing but ice between it and the goal. So Ian Laperriere, a right winger whose specialty is killing off penalties, follows his instincts without a second thought: He drops and offers up his body as a sacrifice.
He blocks the puck . . .
. . . with his mouth.
Seven teeth are shattered. One hundred stitches are required.
Here's the best part - Ian Laperriere returns from triage and plays the third period!
If ever confronted with such a situation again, you wonder, would he shy away? Ha! You haven't been paying attention - this is hockey, the Sport of Stitches. It is not for the timid. And these are the playoffs. Faint of heart, stay home, for this is a game of whooshing speed and seismic collisions played by prideful men with an extraordinary tolerance for pain and a work ethic to put the rest of us to shame.
Moving ahead a few months, it is now late April 2010, the Flyers are about to close out the New Jersey Devils in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and, there is a screaming shot and there is Ian Laperriere getting in front of the puck, muffling the shot, and this time blood is spurting in crimson gushes from above his right eye. This one will cost him between 60 and 70 - you wonder, did they lose count? - stitches.
A CAT scan reveals a spot on his brain, and he is very likely to have to miss the rest of the playoffs.
"The day I stop doing that," he said of shot-blocking, "I'll retire."
He's Old School, in the best sense of that term. His example was of incalculable value, and it wasn't lost on his teammates.
"Guys are doing whatever it takes," said the defenseman, Chris Pronger. "Sometimes blocking one with your face is what it takes. Guys see that, it only makes them want to push harder, sacrifice more . . ."
Nowhere does blood play bigger than in Philadelphia. You bleed, we'll take you to our hearts. (Remember Aaron Rowand? A few years ago, playing center field for the Phillies, in all-out, hell-bent-for-leather pursuit of a deep drive, he smashed face-first into the unpadded outfield wall. Rowand makes every top-10 list for giving your all for the team.)
And of course, blood was the signature of those early Flyers. Bernie (Only The Lord Saves More) Parent. Dave (The Hammer) Schultz. The Watson Brothers. Rick MacLeish. Bobby (Leader of the Pack) Clarke. They are celebrated in an HBO documentary, Broad Street Bullies, that will begin airing Tuesday night.
A lot of them, pardonably paunchy and with a bit of a hitch in their get-along, are still around; truth is, a lot of them never left. There was no place they could go that would enfold them in such a passionate civic embrace like Philadelphia. They have yet been able to buy a round.
They last drank from Stanley's hardware in . . . wow . . . 1975? It's been that long? Really?
Yes, that long, and it reinforces the argument that hockey mavens make, that the Cup is, all factors considered, the most difficult and demanding championship to win that there is in professional sports.
The object of their affection was fashioned by silversmiths commissioned by Lord Stanley of Preston, governor-general of Canada. It goes about 3 feet, 35 pounds, and has been taken by the winners to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, strip joints, and some other ribald stops best not enumerated.
A member of the Islanders, Clark Gillies, confessed to allowing his dog to eat from it. "He's a nice dog," Gillies famously added.
The pursuit of the chalice is long and arduous; don't plan on breathing fresh air for a couple of months. The playoffs begin in spring snow and conclude with flowers in the meadow. They ask you to win 16 times. Theoretically, if every series goes the limit, you could have to play 28 times to get there. (What's the most agonizing possibility of all? Playing 28 and losing the 28th!)
The surest thing of all is this - overtime. There will be lots of OT. Deadline-destroying OT. And not just single OT, either. Double. Triple? They have been known to play almost until dawn. The thing is, the playoffs do not stint on furnishing riveting theater. Of the first 33 games in these playoffs, nine went beyond regulation. Or, about one in every four. Sounds about right.
One reason such high drama is guaranteed is the fluke goal. The puck is famous for producing bizarre ricochets, shots deflected off skates, off goalposts, off masks, off opposing sticks, off just about everything but the Zamboni.
These Flyers stretched the drama to its limits. They qualified for the playoffs by winning a shoot-out on the very last day of the regular season. Eighty-two games and they still weren't done.
They limped into the first round riddled with injury - this is a recording - and they responded with a passion and an intensity that evoked those Flyers of yore, evoked those words of praise so foreign to other sports-muckers and grinders. Along the boards, in the corners, in all those places where things go bump in the night, where games can be won or lost, they dominated. The favored Devils went down in five . . . went down hard.
What awaits the Flyers now? Elimination, if you believe the popular sentiment.
But do not be so quick to dismiss lightly a team that has a man willing to catch frozen rubber bullets. With his face.