‘It hurts to win’: How the unbreakable Mark Stone has led Vegas to within a game of the Stanley Cup

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Vegas Golden Knights have been spotted wearing T-shirts during the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs with the phrase “It Hurts To Win” printed on them.

“Whatever we’ve got to do at this time of year, we’ve got to do it,” forward Nicolas Roy said. “If we’ve got to take a hit. If we’ve got to block a shot.”

Seated next to Roy was Mark Stone, the Golden Knights’ captain.

He has hurt. And they have won.

Like in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, when an overly amped up Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars cross-checked Stone in the jaw while he was flat on the ice, earning Benn a game misconduct and a two-game suspension.

“It didn’t feel good,” Stone said. “I think I was more a little bit surprised. It was my first shift of the game. I didn’t expect to get stomped on like that.”

Vegas would score three times in the first period of that game to chase goalie Jake Oettinger, taking a 3-0 series lead and eventually winning the series in six games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Prior to that, multiple Edmonton Oilers played amateur chiropractor on Stone’s surgically repaired back during the second round, hitting him with their bodies and their sticks at every opportunity.

“I mean, what do you expect, right?” Stone said. “I mean it’s pretty obvious that I had another back surgery. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable playing if I was putting myself at risk. If they want to do that, they can do that. It’s fine. It is what it is.”

It hurt. The Golden Knights won.

“He’s kind of the heart of the team,” Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s such a calm presence out on the ice and he makes everyone look better out there. When he talks, everybody listens. I think he gained that respect from all of us.”

The Golden Knights are now one win over the Florida Panthers away from commissioner Gary Bettman calling Stone over to raise the Stanley Cup. Which is a welcome change from a few months ago, when he couldn’t really lift anything following back surgery.

His second back surgery. In less than nine months.

“I was going to do whatever it took to get back for the playoffs,” Stone said. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to be in Game 1 or Game 5 or Game 10. I was going to do whatever it took to get back.”

Stone knew there was something special about this group. He could sense it on the ice as much as he could glimpse it in the standings.

“We were in first place when I got hurt,” he said. “I knew we had a good team and I wanted to be part of it. Especially when the team kept winning. I wanted to be back there with the guys. Long, hard days. But you just put your head down and you get going.”

STONE’S BACK ISSUES were there in the 2021 playoffs and the offseason. They limited him to 37 games in the 2021-22 season. He went out of the lineup Feb. 9, and then returned April 12 in a desperate effort to get Vegas to the playoffs. But he only managed a goal and an assist in nine games. He was clearly laboring.

In May 2022, Stone underwent a lumbar discectomy.

He was back for the start of the 2022-23 season and played until Jan. 12 when he suffered a back injury against the Panthers. He hoped to avoid surgery and rehab back to health. But he suffered a setback. The decision became clear: Any chance of playing in the postseason would rest on undergoing another surgery as soon as possible.

On Jan. 31, 2023, Stone underwent successful back surgery performed by Dr. Chad Prusmack in Denver. Prusmack previously performed Vegas center Jack Eichel‘s artificial disc replacement surgery.

Then the work began.

“I went to the gym the day after the surgery with the surgeon. Basically got going right away,” Stone said. “I tried to cut out the [rehabilitation] clock where I was basically sitting around, doing nothing. I got going right away.”

Stone did a lot of walking. He was able to do core exercises. He said his goal at that point was to “strengthen the little muscles, I guess.”

Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy would see Stone plenty during his injury rehab. The Golden Knights coaches would hit the gym at their practice facility early in the morning. Often times, Stone would already be there.

“What I saw every day was a captain that was still in the room and talking to players and giving feedback,” Cassidy said. “It’s just good to have a guy around like that because when you have surgery like that and you don’t see him, it’s like out of sight, out of mind, right?”

Knights defenseman Alec Martinez said it was still hard on Stone. Being around the team wasn’t the same as being on the ice.

“When you’re not in the lineup and you’re hurt, you don’t feel like you’re part of the team,” he said. “You’ve got a different schedule. You kind of just see guys passing, just like ships in the night. You just feel disconnected. You’re out on inside jokes in the room. The fun part of it. So yeah, it’s a tough spot to be in.”

Especially when you’re the captain.

“He’s the biggest leader in this room,” Martinez said. “Being out for an extended period of time really takes a toll on you mentally.”

TWO BACK SURGERIES less than nine months apart sparked speculation in NHL circles about Stone’s future. Armchair physicians saw a second surgery as a harbinger of something more chronic.

Could he be the same player that he was? Could he continue to play?

“These are not life-threatening injuries. But they can be career-ending and they can frequently be quite painful and debilitating,” Dr. Caleb Pinegar of Crovetti Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine told Ken Boehlke of, a Golden Knights blog. “When does that point come? The big question I have now is if he tweaks his back again, do they encourage him to hang it up? Because you don’t want to put a young guy through three back surgeries.”

Those were the whispers. But was Stone ever worried about his career?

“No,” he said.

Was that just Stone the competitor talking louder than Stone the realist?

“No, I mean, I’ve seen plenty of doctors in the last three years,” Stone said. “I guess I’ve got a lot of confidence in Dr. Prusmack, with seeing what Jack went through and the success that he’s had with that surgeon. That maybe gave me a little bit of confidence. But no, I never was worried.”

He said people were misreading the necessity for multiple back surgeries.

“You talk to a lot of guys, they don’t usually just get one back surgery,” he said. “They usually get two, because as much as you think you know the problem, sometimes you don’t. And unfortunately it didn’t work the first time, but saw a different surgeon, couple other of minor things done. And I feel great.”

How much better does Stone feel now?

“The crazy thing is that I felt pretty good during the season,” he said with a laugh. “It was an unfortunate incident. Pretty minimal play that took me out for the remainder of the season. But I was feeling good most of the season and I feel good now.”

When, exactly, Stone felt good again has been a contentious point for opposing teams’ fans.

Stone makes $9.5 million against the salary cap. That money was moved to long-term injured reserve when he had his back surgery. The open cap space helped the Knights add forwards Ivan Barbashev and Teddy Blueger as well as goalie Jonathan Quick at the trade deadline.

Stone was activated from injured reserve in time for Game 1 of their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets on April 18 — five days after he missed the finale of their regular season, a.k.a. the last game in which they had to worry about being cap-compliant.

But the captain was back. And the Golden Knights became a much tougher team to play against.

STONE HAS PLAYED 584 games with the Golden Knights and the Ottawa Senators, who traded him to Vegas in 2019. He has 514 points in those games, including 196 goals.

He has 31 goals and 71 points in 94 career playoff games, including eight goals and 13 assists through 21 games in the 2023 postseason.

But it’s his defensive prowess that distinguishes him as an NHL star, having twice been nominated for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. That’s remarkable for a winger — only centers have won the award since 2003.

Cassidy coached one of those centers with the Boston Bruins: Patrice Bergeron, who has won the Selke a record five times.

“I see Stoney’s stick and ability to read plays and be a step ahead, and that’s where he’s most like Bergeron,” the coach said. “He knows where the puck’s going. He seems to have that sense to put out fires because of that.”

Cassidy noted another similarity between Bergeron and Stone: The limitations in their abilities. “They’re not the fastest guys on the ice,” he said. “I think they’ve played this way their whole life and that’s why it’s second nature.”

Marchessault agreed.

“He’s not an outrageous skater or our shooter or a great passer, but it’s his thinking of the game that’s better than everybody else,” he said. “He’s consistent, and that’s probably one of the best of the most positive things to have as a hockey player.”

Eichel has been praised as a 200-foot player in the 2023 playoffs, after years of being seen as one-dimensional. He said he’s taken some inspiration from watching Stone, and facing him in scrimmages.

“When you play against him in training camp, he’s always getting his stick on the puck and pickpocketing you and s—,” he said. “So I imagine for the opposing team, it’s a pain.”

Eichel said it’s difficult to emulate what Stone does defensively, because it comes so naturally to him. Instead, it’s been Stone’s relentless competitiveness that’s been imprinted on him since he arrived in Vegas.

“He’s not really a preacher of any sorts, but you can learn a lot from him and his mindset every day,” Eichel said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a guy that other people gravitate towards. Just being around him for a short amount of time, you realize right away why he’s the captain here.”

Stone has endured, through the surgeries and the rehabs and the sticks to the back and the neck. With just one more win, it’ll all have been worth it.

He hurt. They win.