Kaberle's game of risk

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:09 PM ET

TAMPA -- Tomas Kaberle is standing in front of a gaggle of reporters, attempting to explain the status of his healing right hand, when one of his teammates suddenly blows the whistle on him.

"It was good enough for him to play golf yesterday," a chuckling Jason Blake bellows, spilling the beans on the veteran defenceman. "Ask him what he shot."

Kaberle would not reveal that info. Nothing, after all, is more sacred than a man's golf score.

Besides, casually swinging an 8-iron certainly is less stressful on a hand, if not the nerves, than attempting to unleash a slapshot in the heat of an NHL battle.

And therein lies the issue that some critics have brought up when it comes to Kaberle.

Twice in the past eight weeks, Kaberle has hurt that same hand, sparking questions about his motivation to return to the lineup and risk further injury, a scenario that might force him to go under the knife.

On Jan. 29, Kaberle took a shot off the hand during a game in Colorado against the Avalanche, sidelining him for a month. His return was short-lived when he re-injured the hand early in a contest versus the New Jersey Devils March 3.

Two injuries to the same hand in such a short period of time.

Three strikes, and Kaberle might be out.

For a long time.

Why work your butt off to come back and play the final few weeks for a team that needs a miracle to reach to playoffs?

Why chance a third injury on the hand, one that very much could have long-term implications on his career?

Why not just pull the plug on the season and work on getting completely healthy, just like the Leafs decided to do with goalie Vesa Toskala, who recently scrapped the remainder of the '08-'09 campaign in order to undergo hip surgery?

If Kaberle were to hurt the hand again, a serious setback might have significant implications as his career moves forward, either if he remains a Leaf heading into 2009-10 or if general manager Brian Burke decides to deal him somewhere between the June draft to August 15, the window in which his no-trade clause becomes moot.

Why take the risk?

Peppered with such queries yesterday, Kaberle gazed around the room at some of the kids who were shedding their sweat-logged equipment after practice. Kids with names like John Mitchell and Phil Oreskovic. Kids who grew up watching Kaberle on TV the past 10 years. Kids who look to the Leafs No. 15 for veteran leadership.

"It's about chemistry," Kaberle explained. "If the young guys see you are not doing your best to return, that sets a bad example.

"You can't be worried about (hurting) the hand again. Everyone wants to play. That's the mindset you must have. It doesn't matter if there are just 10, seven, even five games remaining. Hockey is a game of passion. It's still about having pride."

Kaberle practised with his teammates yesterday for the first time since reinjuring the hand two weeks ago. He is aiming to return to the lineup Saturday in Montreal against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, his favourite road rink in the league.

"I had an (X-ray) taken last Thursday and it wasn't that good," he said. "I'll have another picture taken Friday when we get to Montreal. The goal along has been Montreal.

"I can still feel it. There still needs to be improvement."

Assistant coach Tim Hunter said there should be no concerns about Kaberle.

"We trust our training staff," Hunter said. "When they say he's OK and things are going right, why wouldn't he come back? Right now it's just a matter of conditioning for him."

Kaberle says he will not make a decision on representing the Czech Republic at the coming World Championships until after the season. In the meantime, there still remain skeptics who feel he would be better off served by shutting himself down. Now.

"Why would he do that?" forward Brad May said. "He's a hockey player."

MIKE.ZEISBERGER@SUNMEDIA.CA


Photos