Following Saturday’s game at Wells Fargo Center against the Calgary Flames, the majority of the Flyers will embark on a two-week mid-season break provided by the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
But a handful will head up the turnpike to Newark, N.J. to fly over to compete in those Winter Games, marking the 5th Olympics to include NHL players. Joining those players will be Peter DeLuca, M.D., head orthopedic surgeon for the Flyers and Sports Medicine Specialist at the Rothman Institute. Dr. DeLuca, a Sports Doc panelist, will be overseeing the medical care of all NHL players at the Sochi games, regardless of their national affiliation.
“Our role is to monitor the players’ health, but also to supersede if the player’s country feels he can play, and we feel he cannot,” summarizes Dr. DeLuca.
Dr. DeLuca was selected for this honor by the NHL Physicians’ Executive Committee, and will be joined by Dr. Gary Dorsheimer, also of the Flyers, as well as Dr. Don Chow of the Ottawa Senators and Dr. Anthony Colucci of the Detroit Red Wings.
Once in Sochi, protocol is for the NHL player to notify Dr. DeLuca that he’s been injured. “Chances are the national team doctors would not divulge that information on their own,” he admits. If it’s an orthopedic injury, the player will be evaluated by Dr. DeLuca, while Dr. Dorsheimer will handle medical issues such as concussions.
“Depending on what I see, we’ll determine whether the player can return to play or whether they need to sit out,” Dr. DeLuca continues. “Then it’s my responsibility to contact that player’s parent club in the NHL.”
Dr. DeLuca anticipates some tough decisions, and describes his role as “almost an adversarial one, because you could be in conflict with the [national] teams and their doctors.”
“During the Vancouver games, there was a Montreal Canadiens player who’d had knee surgery three weeks prior to the Games,” he recalls. “When he got to Vancouver, the national team’s doctor said he could play. The NHL’s doctor at the Games, and the Canadiens’ doctor said he was not ready to play.”
In the end, the Canadiens made the decision for the player: they told him if he suited up for his country, he would not be paid for the remainder of that NHL season.
This time around, Dr. DeLuca’s role may be even more emphasized. After all, the aforementioned Montreal player had the luxury of communicating with his parent club from Vancouver. Heightened security measures in Sochi will make the transmission of certain information more challenging for the Games, meaning Dr. DeLuca may not be able to reach NHL personnel back in the States or in Canada at will.
“We’re going back to the old times now,” he laughs. “Every medical record is going to be handwritten. Communication is going to be challenging.”
As it pertains to the Flyers who will be in Sochi, Dr. DeLuca believes that were an injury to one of the team’s five players who will be competing, his familiarity with that player might afford him some added credibility with the player’s national team medical staff. Of course, he knows that credibility only goes so far.
“If I decide that player can’t play,” he reasons, “I don’t know if they’re going to respect, or appreciate that.”
Dr. DeLuca admits he’s not looking forward to potential conflicts with national team doctors, who no doubt want players to push themselves for the good of the country. However, his job is to protect the interests of all 30 NHL franchises—not just the Flyers—and he does look forward to the overall experience.
“The injuries are going to be the same,” he reasons, “and therefore, the return-to-play protocol will be the same.”
Despite any potential complications or communication issues, Dr. DeLuca says he looks forward to an experience he’s already counting as a highlight of his career. “For the European players, in particular—they talk about the World Championships and the intensity—and this, I think, may be even a level above that. I think these games will be at Stanley Cup Playoff level intensity—but there’s even a little bit more pride at stake.”