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On again, off again

9/22/2010 - Vancouver Canucks
Jamie Kripke for ESPN The Magazine

The math is cruel: an active NHL roster typically holds 23 players, but only 20 are allowed to dress for any given game. The reality for the healthy scratches -- as the inactives are unofficially called -- is crueler still: When their teammates take the ice at game time, they take the elevator to the press box, trading sweaters and skates for blazers and wingtips. It's such an ignominious fate, in fact, that most NHLers refuse to speak of it. Most, but not all. We found five who have come to see the upside of the scratch.

Nolan Baumgartner, Canucks Defenseman
After 10 seasons and 143 games in the league, Baumgartner knows he'll never kiss the Norris. And he's okay with that. In fact, he says there's an art to being a healthy-scratch regular. An art that pays pretty darn well.

"Usually the assistant coach will tell you you're out near the end of a morning skate. We get a little extra skating in, maybe put in a few extra drills, and then the day is free from there. Guys will go to a movie, grab some lunch, walk around the city if we're on the road. Still, you always have to be ready. There have been times when all of a sudden a guy gets the flu and you get a call. You're at the mall; now you have to step in. It's a tough thing to do, but it's not a bad role to be in. Some guys in the league can sit out 10 straight, then get put into a game on short notice and still play solid. Teams will keep signing those guys year after year because they know they can be counted on, no matter what."

Jim Slater, Thrashers Center
The five-year vet was scratched from 21 of Atlanta's first 38 games last season. This in the last year of his contract. Once he played his way into the lineup, the faceoff specialist impressed with perseverance. This summer Slater inked a two-year, $2 million deal.

"The part I hate the most about being a healthy scratch is sitting there taking off your equipment after warmups while the other guys are getting ready to play. When you get put in that position, you start to get scared. I was thinking, I'm in a contract year -- what's going to happen to me? You know you have to claw your way back, so you stay later at practice. For pregame skates, you get there early to do some shooting drills, then stay afterward and do a 'bag skate' until your lungs are burning and you're hunched over in sweat. When you're done with that, you go and get another workout in. You work twice as hard to get back in the lineup. In the end, I showed I could come back from a little adversity to play at a high level. During our end-of-the-year meetings with the coaches, they said, 'We should have had you in all year.' I thought, Yeah, you should have. But when I look back, maybe it's better they didn't."

Jordan Hendry, Blackhawks Defenseman
After playing in seven straight wins during Chicago's Cup run, Hendry was scratched from the final three games, including the deciding one in Philly. A bummer, for sure. But for Hendry, it was also an opportunity to flash his skills as a supportive teammate.

"When I was scratched for Game 6, I wasn't about to pout. In fact, up in the press box I was one of the biggest fans. And when we went up by a goal in the second period, all of us scratches went down to put on our gear so we could go out on the ice when it was all over. But then Philly tied it in the third, and when the starters came into the locker room before the overtime, we went into the change room so they didn't have to see us, and we finished watching the game on TV. When Patrick Kane fired the game-winner into the net, it was unbelievable. We charged the ice, everyone throwing gloves and sticks. I had flashbacks of me and my friends playing street hockey, lifting an ice cream pail over our heads like it was the Cup. In the end, it didn't matter that I had been scratched. The feeling was still pretty cool."

Jed Ortmeyer, Free Agent Wing
Just because you're a healthy scratch doesn't mean you're healthy. Ask Ortmeyer, whom the Sharks sidelined for the final two games of their conference semis win over Detroit without revealing his double hernia. The Sharks didn't want the Wings to know Ortmeyer was a long shot to return -- lest they adjust their lines -- but being reduced to a strategic pawn was a tough pill to swallow for the veteran.

"When we clinched and I wasn't on the ice, it almost made me feel not part of it. You know a healthy body is going to give us a better shot at winning, but selfishly I wanted to be a part of it. Anytime you're scratched, no matter the reason, you feel like it's an attack on you. But these injuries and setbacks just make me stronger and more determined."

Ville Leino, Flyers Wing
How do you go from press box regular to playoff standout as a rookie? For Leino, it took a February trade from the Wings, some timely injuries to his new 'mates and a steely resolve forged by an endless string of scratches.

"I think Detroit started scratching me last season just to wake me up. But it was embarrassing. It hurts your self-confidence. A lot of thoughts go through your mind because you have a lot of time on your hands. You start thinking this job might not work out at all. But ultimately you have to let it be and hope you get another chance. So when I got traded, I was happy for a new start. Still, when injuries hit the team in the opening playoff series, I hadn't played for a while. So in my first game back, I was just trying to survive out there and be relaxed. Every game I got more confident. It was good to get that feeling back, and a great finish for the team. I guess being scratched was something I had to go through to get there."


Morty Ain is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.