‘The harder you play, the more you get injuries’: Panthers plastic surgeon busy during playoffs
Rarely does Dr. Gregory Albert sit through an entire Florida Panthers game, especially during the playoffs.
When the plastic surgeon sees a player heading towards the tunnel during game time, he rises from his seat on the left of the team bench and follows, ready to assess an injury.
Inside the hockey team’s locker room, Albert has a surgical area set up, outfitted with an examination table and medical supplies. So far this season he has stitched up defensemen Aaron Ekblad’s cheek and both of Radko Gudas’ eyebrows. During a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he sutured a laceration on Carter Verhaeghe’s chin. He even sutured a Panthers coach few weeks ago when he was hit in the neck with stick.
During each of the recent high-stakes playoff games, Albert expected an eventful night.
“The harder you play, the more you get injuries,” he said. And even more could be ahead as the Panthers enter the Stanley Cup Finals.
Bloodied faces, cracked noses … the scene in the medical room is mayhem. A television blasts with the sounds of the live game. The buzzer. The cheers. The score. The game clock.
“There might be three or four guys with cuts or contusions … sometimes I will be suturing few guys in succession,” Albert says. “If I wasn’t so trained, it would be very, very nerve-wracking. A player who comes off ice, wants to go back on it. I will be trying to suture as fast as I can and as meticulous as I can.”
Albert said the numbing medication lasts a couple of hours, so most often, the player goes back out to continue playing. “They are determined, and every second counts, especially if they are hot that night. It’s usually the guy who is hot that night who gets cut.”
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Deep cuts, like the ones Albert tends to, are caused by a hard blow from a stick or puck, rarely from a fight. “The player may take a stick to the jaw or cheek or a helmet into the eyebrow,” he explains.
When a player like Florida Panthers’ captain Aleksander Barkov skates back out to his position after a gash, the crowd rarely knows Albert has done his handiwork. Sometimes, Albert even sutures the opposing team. Most hockey teams don’t take their plastic surgeons with them with they travel, which is why Albert also has re-stitched Panthers players who were treated by another doctor in a way that didn’t meet his liking.
With broken noses, most are reset during the off-season. Albert will pack a player’s broken nose so he can go back into the game or make it through the season. “A few times I have numbed it up and fixed it right there, even without anesthesia. Some of these guys are really tough.”
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Twenty years ago, Albert was recruited to Panthers’ medical staff by another doctor. The staff has grown and now includes orthopedic surgeons, a dentist, cardiologist, vision specialist, neurologist and chiropractor.
“It’s a lot of teamwork. After working with same dentist and doctors and trainers for so many years, we work even better now as a team,” Albert said. “Communication is better and we can get players back on the ice quicker.”
In his day job as a Boca Raton plastic surgeon, Albert does tummy tucks, breast implants, face-lifts and other types of cosmetic procedures. He also treats professional athletes from the NFL and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). He recently repaired the eye socket of a Dolphins player using titanium plates.
Albert said the tools needed for the Panthers players differ from those for his office patients. For example, he uses bigger needles and bigger sutures to better keep a cut closed.
Boca Raton dentist Martin Robins said he and Albert often work side-by-side on a player. As the team dentist, Robins will numb the mouth and Albert will sew up the cheek or lip.
“There’ a lot of comradery,” Robins said. Albert typically will be the first in the lineup when there are multiple injuries, Robins said. “We need him to stop the bleeding and then we ascertain what’s next. Everyone can sew but no one will sew as well as a plastic surgeon. He’s good at it and fast.”
Robins said he is not as busy during a game as Albert. Even with the longer, competitive season, there have been fewer dental injuries for the hockey players than in past years. The mouth guards and dental protection have improved, and more players are wearing them, he said. Where in past seasons he has seen jaw breaks and missing teeth, this season there have been only broken teeth that can be filed.
Robins said the travel schedule often means a player who needs follow-up often can’t come to his or Albert’s office the next day. “We have to fix them well enough that they can travel and play, and when they return we get them fixed up as fast as possible,” he said.
Now, as the Panthers advance to the Stanley Cup finals for the second time, Albert will break from the norm and travel with the team, partly as a doctor, partly as a fan.
“I am just trying to adjust my schedule,” Albert said .”This is a once-in a lifetime thing. Well, hopefully not just once in a lifetime.”
Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at [email protected].