Off the Bench: Bighorns players sport own ‘badge of courage’

By JEFF WINDMUELLER Independent Record | Posted: Friday, March 5, 2010

For more than a generation, youth hockey players have been forced to wear full face masks, and yet the toothless grin is still synonymous with the sport.

It’s evident every time Russian superstar Alexander Ovechkin scores a goal and lets out that beaming smile devoid of a left-front tooth.

It could be seen on the lovable faces of the 1980 U.S. hockey team celebrating their “Miracle on Ice” moment — for many of us probably during a Visa commercial.

And for those who like to spend a weekend night at the Helena Ice Arena, it’s becoming the trademark of a few of the Bighorns’ top players.

Less than three weeks ago veteran defenseman and captain Zack Maxwell had a nice row of 16 pearly whites across the top of his mouth. He’s down to 13 1/2 after a freak accident in practice.

“A kid was taking a slapshot, I went to block it with my stick,” Maxwell recalled. “It hit my blade and came right up to my teeth.”

His mouth mangled by the vulcanized rubber, Maxwell was rushed to the emergency room, but was told there was nothing they could do. He would have to wait to see a dentist.

“He had to straighten a bunch of teeth. I didn’t get a root canal until the next day,” Maxwell said.

“He looked like ‘Ducky’ off ‘Land Before Time,’ ” said teammate Rudy Pino, who’s missing his own front tooth and has two fakes on the bottom.

Unlike Maxwell, Pino’s gap was thanks to a goalie’s stick (for those who don’t know, it’s heavier and wider than a regular player’s) and came roughly two years ago.

Tom Greene, a recent pickup from Bozeman, is missing a little over half of his front tooth, thanks to another errant stick. Ironically, the accident came in his first game against his old team, on his first shift.

Were the Icedogs just saying “hello?”

“I guess so,” Greene said.

Though they’re certainly allowed to wear the full-faced wire cages or even a clear plastic mask to protect everything above the neck, Junior A players often scrap the old standbys for a visor — or “halfie” as the Bighorns like to call it — when they reach the age of 18.

It raises the question of “why?”

Maxwell would argue vision and comfort. He doesn’t like looking through a cage or apparently having a chin strap to deal with.

Pino, he’s in it for the looks.

“You’ve got style points,” he said. No one wears a full clear mask anymore, at least not without being teased.

Greene, well, he might have put it all simpler:

“You always wanted to lose a tooth until it happens,” he said.

Like wrestlers with cauliflower ears or boxers with broken noses, there’s a certain sense of pride in the painful experience. A red badge of courage, per se.

“I think in the past it was, I’m sure it still is,” said Bighorns head coach Scott Cunningham. “My idol growing up was Bobby Clarke. I was probably five or six, seven years old when I saw him.

“I was just watching hockey night in Canada and he skated around with his stick on his hips and he had that grin on his face and all four of his teeth are knocked out. Right away, I loved Philadelphia and loved Bobby Clarke.”

Did Cunningham give up one of his sparkling teeth for the hockey gods? He’d have to pull his cheek way back to show it. A player’s skate once slid up and hit him in the face, piercing his cheek and knocking out a molar.

“All through playing you’re thinking how cool it would be to have no teeth, then when you get older, of course, you want to have your teeth,” Cunningham said.

The young players are learning firsthand what that’s like.

“I can’t even eat hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza,” Maxwell said. “I have to cut everything up.”

“Corn on the cob is hard, you end up missing a line,” Pino added.

Greene, he has to bite an apple at an angle, but his bigger concern is how the stub in his mouth is razor sharp.

“I’ve cut my lip on this thing more than I have my entire life,” he said.

Then, there’s the stigma involved with having a few pieces missing from a grill.

Pino said he’ll try to hide the gap if he’s having dinner on a date. His girlfriend likes to take his retainer containing a fake tooth away to tease him. His teammates, meanwhile, like to hide it around the ice rink.

“I’ve found it in shoes. I’ve found it in jock straps. I’ve found it in stalls. I’ve found it everywhere — on little ledges up top. Anywhere you can think of,” he said.

Maxwell has had to hide his smile from family members.

“My grandparents really started giving me a hard time,” he said. “My grandma, she was like ‘don’t smile!’ ”

His response: “All right, I’m trying not to.”

But no matter how they’re viewed by the outside world — and its legions of angry dentists — they can find comfort at the ice rink, where they share the look of Ovechkin and Clarke.

“Everyone thinks it’s pretty cool,” Maxwell said. “They make fun of it, but in the end they think it’s pretty sweet.”

But what about looking good?

“I’m a hockey player,” Maxwell said with a gaping grin.

Sports editor Jeff Windmueller: 447-4065 or jeff.windmueller@helenair.com