TAMPA — Before Thursday's game, while the hockey fans were filing into the arena and the players were lacing their skates, Dr. Tony Castro and his colleagues sat at a table outside the Lightning locker room, eating roast beef from plastic plates — and talking teeth.
Most of the players' mouths are in great shape. This season, the team has lost only 15 teeth. Most of the guys have been wearing mouth guards. Not much to worry about tonight, the team dentists decided.
Center Nate Thompson, who had a front tooth knocked out during Game 4 against the Capitals, still has a gap — but the hole healed well.
And they would keep an eye on Marty St. Louis. A stick blade to the mouth in Game 1 against the Penguins had loosened the forward's teeth, necessitating a double root canal. In Game 2 of the Capitals series, he got whacked again twice, requiring the dentist to cement three of his teeth back in.
There isn't time to finish St. Louis' root canals until after the season. So team dentist Sam Caranante built a tooth cast of reinforced resin, stuffed some cotton around St. Louis' gums and tried to ease his pain.
"For a little guy," Castro said, "that Marty is real tough."
Ten minutes before the face-off, Castro set out to talk to the team trainer.
St. Louis was still a little uncomfortable. But nothing that would affect his play. Castro went upstairs and took his seat near the center of the rink, five rows up, just to the right of the players' box.
If anyone gets whacked by a puck or a stick or a fist, he can climb over the railing, down into the tunnel, and try to fix up the player right there.
"Our job during the game," Castro said, "is basically to just stop the bleeding and get them back out on the ice."
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Once, hockey players considered gap-toothed grins a badge of honor. Missing teeth meant playing hard, being willing to sacrifice your smile.
But in these days of televised games, advertising spreads and trophy wives, "Players worry about what they look like now," said team dentist Vince Caranante, 77.
Every NHL team has a dentist. The Lightning have three, plus two oral surgeons, who rotate being on-call for home games. If a Lightning player is hurt on the road, the opposing team's dentist patches him up until he gets back to Tampa.
Caranante and his brother Sam, 68, have been taking care of the players since the franchise's inception. Gil Rivera, 35, who bought their practice, also works the games. Besides repairing hockey injuries, the dentists give the guys regular checkups, fill cavities and build crowns.
Castro and Dr. Bob Orta are the team's oral and maxillofacial surgeons. They stitch players' split lips, pop fractured jaws back in place.
In the training room, the dentists and doctors work on players still standing in their skates or sit them on benches. They have an x-ray machine, mirrors and lights, tools and temporary cement, syringes and Novocain. If the dentist or surgeon can't fix something during the game, he brings the player back to his Tampa office afterward.
"Hockey pucks are pretty nasty," Orta said. "They're frozen solid, coming at you at 100 miles per hour. That can really do some damage to a face."
Sticks aren't quite as hard, but cut with brute force. And many of the players' mouth injuries are from opponents' fists.
"I always tell them, it's better to take a hit straight on and mess up your teeth," Castro said. "Teeth are much easier to fix than if you turn your head and take a Sunday punch to the jaw."
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Hang out with the Lightning's dental team and you'll hear surprising statistics, stories so gruesome they make your teeth hurt.
• About half of the players have lost teeth. Goalies almost never get mouth injuries because their helmets have a cage.
• When a high stick broke off Nate Thompson's front tooth, the trainer found it on the ice. Sometimes, if you wash a tooth right away you can pop it back in. But Thompson's split at the root. So Rivera said, "I had to just take out what was left."
• Of all the hockey horror, team dentists agreed, Craig MacDonald's was the worst. On Dec. 20, 2007, a puck smashed into MacDonald's face, fracturing nine teeth, only three of which could be salvaged. He also required 25–30 stitches to close a cut in his tongue and an additional 50 inside his lip and gums. MacDonald underwent three root canal surgeries the next morning.
"It took me a total of 10 appointments, four hours each, just to make his mouth make sense," Rivera said.
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After Thursday's game, while the hockey fans filed out of the arena and the players unlaced their skates, the surgeon and dentist met in the training room.
The Lighting had lost to the Bruins. No one had been hurt.
But St. Louis' teeth were still aching. Behind the cotton packing, his gums were swollen. Castro and Sam Caranante worked on the forward for 40 minutes, draining pus and trying to stabilize his teeth.
They don't know if he will be able to keep all three. But they patched him up enough to get him back out on the ice tonight.
"He isn't worried. He just doesn't want the distraction," the dentist said. "He kept going, 'At least it's not a knee or a shoulder. It's just teeth.' "
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.