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The Curious Case Of Michael Leighton's Injury

If Leighton was injured in May, but both a physical and an MRI missed the injury, how did he get to a herniated disc requiring surgery?

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On Monday, Michael Leighton had successful surgery to repair a bulging disc in his back. In case you aren't familiar with the timeline on Leighton's injury, here it is:  Leighton leaves a Saturday night game with "soreness" and will have an MRI the next day, when the team returns to Philadelphia. The MRI is conducted, but the results aren't revealed right away. On Monday afternoon, GM Paul Holmgren says Leighton will rest, but expects to be skating again on Thursday. The next day, we're told he will be out about a month with a bulging disc. Then, a week and a half later, we're told he needs to have surgery to repair the injury and will miss an additional 6-8 weeks.

At this point, Leighton isn't expected to play again until Thanksgiving at the earliest. Now, most people view this as minor news, especially with the recent play of rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. And really, if Leighton has to miss two months at the beginning of the season, the Flyers aren't going to be scrambling to replace him for a variety of reasons.

The problem, however, comes in the form of how the injury was disclosed, handled, and reported. Michael Leighton himself said that this injury has been nagging him since the playoffs. In announcing that Leighton would need to undergo surgery, both Michael Leighton and Paul Holmgren spoke to the media. The origins of the injury became clear.

"I first felt [the bulging disc] in playoffs last year,” Leighton said. “I gave it time to settle down, and obviously it was injured and it never really went away. So when I was working out in the summer and doing activities it was flaring up a little bit, but nothing to the point where it is now."

Leighton had this injury since May? That's before the Flyers decided to sign him to a two-year contract. Didn't the team undergo tests on him?

"I had some tests done and it wasn't very severe in the summer. At the start of training camp it was there, but it wasn't bothering me on the ice," Leighton said. So he did have tests done?  But when in the summer were the tests done? According to Sam Carchidi, Leighton "passed a physical" before signing his contract.

But if Leighton was injured in May, and felt the injury in June, how was a physical passed before the end of June? Paul Holmgren, what say you?

"Obviously, I'm not happy about this now," general manager Paul Holmgren said, "but we certainly didn't know about this in the summertime, when we were going through the contract negotiations." 

Okay, fair enough. But your goalie was injured in May. You signed him in June. He passed a physical before signing, then underwent tests at some point after he signed the contract. Why weren't the tests done before signing him to a contract?

“With Michael, this cropped up in July. We had an MRI done. It didn’t show anything of issue." Okay, Mr. Holmgren. I'm having a hard time understanding this. Did you not know your goalie was injured?

“We didn’t really know that much about it until he had an issue in the summertime, and we’re still not certain it was related to this."  Wow, now I'm really confused. You didn't know "that much about it" until the summer. Well, what exactly did you know? Was the physical just routine, or did you specify to the physician that Leighton was complaining of soreness in his back, and that area should be examined closely?

If you didn't know he was hurting - as Mr. Holmgren has intimated, by expressing unhappiness - and your physical didn't reveal that he was, how effective is the physical? Further to that point, if you run an MRI that doesn't show "anything of issue", how effective is the MRI?

Really, the problem here is how unclear it all is. The timeline over the summer, according to Paul Holmgren, is that Leighton was injured, but neither a physical nor an MRI revealed that he was injured. Three months later, after only two weeks of playing hockey, it's discovered that Leighton has a bulging disc that will require surgery.

While nobody is ready to say that the organization is being less than truthful, or worse, less than accurate in diagnosing injuries, the handling and disclosing of Michael Leighton's injury raises serious questions. Just how hurt was Leighton in the playoffs? When did his back injury become a herniated disc? If, as the organization says, it occurred at some point in September, how did it get that serious over a summer of non-hockey activities? How did Leighton's expected recovery time go from "a couple of days" to over two months?

The most important questions raised, however, are in regards to the process through which players are deemed healthy before signing their contracts. If the physical cannot detect injuries to players - which isn't necessarily the case here, though it certainly seems that way - how can that be fixed? If the alternative is undergoing an MRI, and that could not reveal a herniated disc in July - which, again, may not have been herniated at that time - how can we determine that it's there?

If, alternatively, Leighton herniated his back in training camp, after the team knew he was in pain for over three months, what can be done to prevent players from aggravating their injuries from minor to requiring surgery?

The takeaway needs to be that the Flyers must change their approach to evaluating a player's health before signing them to a contract. How that is accomplished, however, isn't obvious because this whole situation is unclear. Probably a little like the MRI taken on Michael Leighton's back in July.