VANCOUVER – About half the athletes in the world had a sense of the excruciating pain Sami Salo felt on May 9, 2010 when the Vancouver Canucks defenceman was drilled in the reproductive organs by a Duncan Keith slapshot during a playoff game in Chicago.
And no one who was at Rogers Arena for the series’ next game two nights later will forget Vancouver fans’ famous response to the incident.
“Balls of steel, balls of steel,” former Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness instantly recalled 10 years later. “I love Sami Salo.”
That was the night everyone loved Sami Salo, who suffered at least 40 injuries during his 15-year National Hockey League career and until that elimination game against the Blackhawks a decade ago was often disparaged for his lack of durability.
“That was an unforgettable moment when a sellout crowd starts chanting ‘Balls of steel,’” Salo, 45, said in a telephone interview from his native Finland. “It’s one of the greatest memories I have from Vancouver. I’ve watched it 100 times. Every year, I still get asked about it. ‘Is it really true the fans were chanting balls of steel?’”
Yes – and for good reason.
Due to the frequency of his injuries, Salo was one of those players who didn’t receive the acknowledgement he deserved for his quiet and constant excellence through most of his 878 NHL games. He was a “glue guy” for the Canucks, a veteran pro who pulled teammates together and delivered a steady, dependable game when he was healthy.
“Sami was a guy who just kept our team so good,” former Canucks winger Daniel Sedin said recently. “He kept the back end together and did his job 100 per cent and never made a mistake. He was a tough Finn and a great teammate.”
But he was atrociously unlucky with injuries. Salo ruptured an Achilles tendon playing ball hockey one summer in Finland, suffered a gruesome facial injury when hit by teammate Alex Edler’s clearance, pulled a glute muscle while celebrating a goal. He was even bitten by a snake.
So when Salo was writhing in agony on the ice at the United Center after Keith’s power-play slapshot hit him in the testicles at the end of the first period of Game 5 of the second-round series, then was shown on television being loaded into an ambulance, nobody – neither players nor press, coaches nor fans – thought the defenceman would play Game 6 back in Vancouver.
After the Canucks won Game 5 4-1 to stay alive against the Blackhawks, there were erroneous reports Salo had suffered a “ruptured testicle.”
“If he plays tonight, man, that guy’s an ironman,” Chicago winger Adam Burish told reporters before Game 6. “Maybe I will rub up against him, so I can get some of that toughness. How you can play through something like that blows my mind.”
With the Canucks’ season on the line, Salo played after taking two injections to dull the pain in the injured area.
“Everyone had written him off because of the injuries he had in the past,” Bowness said. “But there he was. And he went out and played a great game. You know what I remember about that? He didn’t hesitate to get in front of shots. He hit guys. He was in a lot of pain, but there was no hesitation in his game. That’s what I remember.
“I’ve never seen a guy with such bad luck on freaky injuries that people didn’t understand. The reputation that he got, that this guy is injury-prone and he’s soft, that was the furthest thing from the truth. That balls-of-steel chant, that was recognition that this guy has had tough breaks [but] is fighting through it and is out here playing for his teammates. I was glad when that chant started.”
The chants began during an early Canucks power play as Salo retrieved the puck and skated up ice, and recurred later in the game that Vancouver lost 5-1.
“Whenever you’re at home and the crowd starts chanting your name, it’s a really cool feeling,” former teammate Kevin Bieksa said. “I remember early in my career, Nazzy [Markus Naslund] got a penalty shot and the whole crowd started chanting: ‘Nazzy! Nazzy! Nazzy!’ I remember how cool that was.
“Sami was so tough. I know he had a lot of injuries… but there was nothing you can do about them. That’s not soft. Soft is when you can’t play through pain or something like that. That wasn’t Sami.
“You never want to be hit in the nuts by anything, so you can’t imagine how much it hurts with the puck. I don’t think people know, but your jock doesn’t cover everything. It covers most of the stuff, but it can’t cover everything because you need to be able to move and you can’t skate if there’s this big (cup) rubbing against the inside of your legs. There’s always a little bit exposed unfortunately.”
Nearly as famous as the chants was Salo’s comment to reporters after the game when he was pressed for details about his injury: “The general was fine. The first battalion was down.”
Salo laughed when reminded of this by Sportsnet.
“It was just in the spur of the moment,” he said. “That was my way of sometimes joking about injuries. That was my way of coping with pressure… trying to say something funny. I remember one injury in Chicago, they asked me if it was my shoulder or knee. I said: ‘I’m not sure if it’s a shoulder or knee or it hurts when I pee.’
“I’d be wrong if I said I wasn’t frustrated about the injuries. Just the way I played, once I put the sweater on and jumped on the ice, there was no being afraid out there and not going into situations hard enough or not blocking a shot.”
After four seasons in Ottawa and nine with the Canucks, Salo spent his last two years mentoring Victor Hedman in Tampa before retiring from the NHL in 2014 at the age of 39. It was a wrist injury that finally did him in. Everything else on his body, he said, is fine now.
“It’s probably one of the most painful things I can remember,” he said of Keith’s slapshot 10 years ago. “But it was also one of my greatest memories from Vancouver because it showed you the kind of fans we had.”
Balls of steel. Heart of gold.