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London Knights’ Liam Herbst has had 4 surgeries and might need 2 more: a cautionary tale with growing young goalies

Liam Herbst led his Mississauga Rebels midgets to the OHL Cup title last March (OHL Images)

If you doubt that young hockey players today play and train more than is healthy for developing bodies, then forgo reading the latest update about London Knights first-round selection Liam Herbst.

The NHL has its one goalie prototype — 6-foot-2, preferably taller and able to make the net disappear when he drops down into the butterfly position. Minor hockey is very much a monkey-see, monkey-do enterprise compared to even other youth sports that people take way too seriously. However the NHL does it should be emulated all the way down to the novice age group. So you get a coach at the atom age level who wants to win teaching a 'system' to 10-year-olds and, five years later, a midget coach wondering why those same kids cannot properly receive a pass. Or young goalies putting stress on their joints by learning the butterfly. Reading about Herbst is reminiscent of hearing about prepubescent pitchers who have needed Tommy John surgery.

This is written in full hope Herbst will not be a sacrificial lamb. London used its first-round pick last spring to draft the 6-foot-3 Herbst out of minor hockey. First he needed surgeries to repair cartilage damage to each knee. The Knights announced in December that Herbst would not play again this season. As Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star detailed, Herbst's health situation is grim, if not entirely bleak.

This past summer Liam underwent microfracture surgery to both knees, a procedure to stimulate the growth of new cartilage more commonly associated with mid- to late-career basketball pros closer to twice his age.

This month Liam had another surgery to repair damage in his right hip and another on his left knee. In the coming weeks it’s expected he’ll be encouraged by doctors to submit to operations on his left hip and right knee.

“It’s pretty significant damage to his knees and hips,” said Mark Guy, Liam’s agent. “What I’ve been told by the doctors is they believe there’s a chance they can fix it, and he’ll have a chance to come back and play.”

The injuries Liam has endured, while not often seen in teenagers, aren’t uncommon among goaltenders who play the dominant butterfly style. The scars of hip surgery, once associated with aging blue hairs, have become common among the young men who patrol blue ice. Four years ago, Sports Illustrated pronounced the problem an NHL “epidemic.”

Why? The butterfly, the flop-to-the-knees technique popularized in the mid-1980s by Patrick Roy and adopted nearly universally since, is an unnatural movement that’s being practised incessantly — as many as a few hundred times a day among those as competitively driven as Liam.

All that repetition can put undue stress on, among other body parts, the hips. The hip is a ball-and-socket joint. The head of the femur — the thigh bone that connects the knee to the hip — acts as the ball. A scientific study has estimated that a typical butterfly save sees the ball jammed into its socket with the force equal to an Olympic weightlifter performing the clean and jerk.

... “I’ve been playing the position a long time. I grew a lot. I grew fast. And my muscles weren’t strong enough to absorb the force,” Liam said. “You get a problem in one area, you get compensation patterns in another area, it gets worse and worse.” (Toronto Star)

One news story does not empirical evidence make, of course. This does come at a time when perhaps the best 17-year-old goalie in Hockey Canada's system, Eric Comrie of the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans, is at home rehabbing after needing procedures on each of his hips earlier this month. With proper treatment and dedication, Comrie has a good chance of returning to the form he had shown.

Some might say that is making much out of little. Comrie, though, is already under contract with a major junior team. Plus, not to indulge any scenes-from-the-class-struggle stuff here, his father Bill Comrie, is the founder of The Brick furniture chain. (The chain, by the way, sponsors one of the biggest minor hockey tournaments in Canada, good on them.) One gets the sense money is probably not an object in ensuring Eric Comrie makes a completely recovery, not that one should begrudge him.

Herbst is a different case, as Feschuk delves into. It's true that every day spent even in just the Ontario Hockey League is a dream. However, the price tag is hefty enough without having a son whose body needs an overhaul because the 'developing hockey players instead of athletes' mentality that pervades a puck-mad nation. Herbst — and minor hockey parents might want to pay attention here — doesn't have a certified contract with the Knights since he never appeared in a game.

From Feschuk:

In pursuit of the game’s mega-dollar pinnacle, Liam now sees one of his biggest problems as a lack of money. Liam’s parents, Peter and Cynthia Herbst, estimate they’ve already spent about $10,000 on his post-surgery rehabilitation. They figure it will cost at least another $20,000 to get the help required to return him to the ice. But who will pay the bill remains an open question. While the cost of Liam’s surgeries were covered under OHIP, specialized physiotherapy and other forms of rehab do not generally fall under the universal plan’s purview. Peter Herbst, Liam’s stonemason father, says the recession has hit his business hard, and that with two other sons in AAA hockey, he and his wife no longer have sufficient means.

Liam signed a contract with the London Knights last year, shortly after the team drafted him, but he isn’t technically a member of the club. OHL commissioner David Branch said the league’s contracts aren’t certified until a player appears in a game. Without his contract being certified, Liam won’t get the OHL education package that would have guaranteed him four years of post-secondary tuition as long as he didn’t quit the team.

Because he’s not under contract and because the injury didn’t occur in the OHL, Branch said neither the team nor the league “bear responsibility on their part to pay for extraordinary expenses that the family chose to incur.”

“What’s getting lost here is the health and welfare of this young guy,” Branch said. “Let’s hope he can make a recovery so he can live a normal life. And if he gets to play hockey at a high level — hey, that becomes a bonus.”

Peter Herbst said he feels as though his son has “fallen through the cracks” of the system.

“Really, nobody is at fault,” said the father. “It’s not like the OHL are bad guys or the London Knights are bad guys. But that’s the way the system works.”

(The reference to the elder Herbst's business experiencing a slowdown is relatable. Small business people in the building trades often bear the brunt of an economic slowdown. Their market is mostly from discretionary spending — someone wanting a new back deck, new kitchen cabinets, a stone wall in front of their property. Take it from a carpenter's son who remembers the early 1990s.)

Meantime, the system won't change. Hockey is an entertainment business and if Liam Herbst doesn't make it, someone else will come along. So many elements of his story just feel wrong. It even feels a little wrong to treat make a martyr out of a young man who wants to be Martin Brodeur, but it had to be said.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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