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Olympics / Sports

NHL doctors go to great lengths to keep players' conditions private, protect league's assets

SOCHI, Russia -- At some point during the Olympic men's hockey tournament, which opened Thursday with a pair of games, a Flyers executive in Philadelphia might receive a mysterious text from a "clean phone" here.

Before that team official could decipher the message -- which might read something like, "3 ... MCL ... Grade I ... 7-day hold" -- he would need to crack the code.

There are 149 NHL players here. Each of their teams has a list of numbers that, like the "3" in this example, correspond to their players.

Using numbers instead of names and specially issued cellphones wiped clear of all data, the two Philadelphia physicians representing the NHL in Sochi can communicate discreetly.

"The owners were very concerned about that," said Peter DeLuca, the Flyers' orthopedic surgeon who, along with Flyers internist Gary Dorsheimer, are the NHL's Olympic medical representatives.

"They said any kind of personal account or anything with a password could be hacked by the Russians in a minute. So we left everything home, and they issued us these 'clean phones.' "

Apart from medical-privacy issues, the James Bond-like tactics resulted from concerns that if the Russians accessed information on the health of NHL stars, they could use it to their advantage.

Essentially, DeLuca's job is to monitor the players' health, which is another way of saying he's here to provide second opinions and to protect the 30 NHL owners' sizable investments.

"We're here to supersede if the national doctor thinks a player can play and we think he can't," said DeLuca, a sports-medicine specialist at the Rothman Institute.

That, of course, sets up the potential for serious conflict, the interests of a national team in a 10-day tournament being distinctly different from those of a salary-paying NHL team.

"If I decide a player can't play, I don't know for sure that he'll respect my opinion," DeLuca said. "But a lot of these NHL players don't know the national-team doctors. They know us, and they trust us."

In 2010, DeLuca recalled, a Montreal player arrived at the Vancouver Games three weeks after knee surgery. His national-team doctor cleared him. The NHL physician did not. Only after the Canadiens threatened financial penalties did he agree to sit out.

The Olympic-team doctors, charged with helping their nations win medals, don't always appreciate the interference of medical outsiders.

"At Nagano, when the NHL physicians were first involved in the Olympics, they had a meeting with all the national doctors," DeLuca said. "The Swedish doctor angrily told them, 'We don't want you here,' and he walked out. I understand things have gotten a lot better since then, but we've still got be very political."

Not surprisingly, one of the touchiest issues will be head injuries.

If, say, Alex Ovechkin gets dinged in the gold-medal game, it would take a courageous Russian physician to bench him or to inform the NHL doctors of the injury.

"Chances are national-team doctors would not divulge that information on their own," DeLuca said.

Before departing for Sochi, NHL players were made to sign "return-to-play" agreements. Those mandated that if concussed, players would abide by the judgment of the league's physicians.

If a diagnosed player still wants to continue, he would then have to waive the NHL of any responsibility.

"But we had a meeting here with the attorney for the (NHL Players Association)," DeLuca said, "and he said that something signed by a cognitively impaired player probably wouldn't hold up legally anyway."

DeLuca arrived here Monday on one of four NHL charters. He's staying at an Olympic Park hotel but hasn't yet had time to see many events or sights.

"It's been a lot busier than I expected," he said.

There was a meeting Tuesday with the team doctors, then a longer-than-expected session with Russian paramedics on the protocol for removing from the ice players with spinal-cord injuries.

"The communication didn't go real smoothly," DeLuca said of the latter session.

He also had to examine a Czech player who had been hurt in his last NHL game, against the Flyers, and never got one of the pre-Olympic exit physicals the league requires.

And now that the men's tournament has begun, DeLuca and Dorsheimer need to attend every game, as many as four a day.

"We'll watch closely, and if we see a player get up slowly, we'll check on his condition afterward with the team physician," he said.

He and Dorsheimer will return to Philadelphia Tuesday. DeLuca also works with the Eagles and is due at the NFL combine in Indianapolis Wednesday. Physicians from the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings will replace them at the Games.

In the meantime, he'll be looking for limps.

"These guys are very competitive," he said. "All of them want to play."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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