PITTSBURGH - There was a time when just about every hockey player had a denture cup in his locker.
If you played hockey, losing teeth was an occupational hazard that was a matter of "when" rather than "if."
Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Bobby Clarke were famous for the toothless grins they'd often flash in news photos.
There are dangers all over the ice: A puck that takes an errant bounce, a well-aimed punch, the knob of a stick. Little wonder, then, that so many players sacrificed their teeth for their team.
Hockey legend holds that Gordie Howe lost four teeth in his first NHL game, then none in the 2,420 games that followed.
Ken Daneyko, who played 19 seasons for the New Jersey Devils, lost 12 teeth in his career, seven lower and five upper. Post-hockey, he did TV commercials for dental implants.
But things have changed.
A combination of better prevention and modern dentistry has led to the new wave, where players have been able to retain their teeth.
"I haven't lost any," winger Mike Rupp said. "I've worn a mouth guard all the time, so that might be the secret. I know it's the secret. I've gotten hit in my mouth guard and my teeth have gotten knocked loose and turned black, but they've been able to be saved. I've been fortunate."
This is a subject raised with some trepidation.
Winger Greg Adams immediately said. "Now you're going to jinx me" when the topic was introduced.
Nearly every player who discussed it knocked on the wooden bench in the locker room before answering any questions.
Who can blame them? They've gotten attached to their teeth.
Rupp is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound bruiser who has been playing professionally since 2000. He's also picked up 12 major penalties for fighting this season.
Yet his dental profile is perfect. There can be no better endorsement for the mouth guard, a piece of protective equipment some players shun because they find it uncomfortable.
"I've taken hard shots right in the front," Rupp said. "My teeth turned dark for two months and they were real sore. There was a time I had to keep my mouth guard in all the time for two days on the road. It was kind of holding my teeth in there, and when I got home, I took it out and went to the dentist. They worked on them, but they were fine."
Adams is another player with no missing teeth, and that also comes as a bit of an upset.
Adams throws body checks and he is a fearless shot blocker on the penalty killing unit.
"I've obviously been hit in the face a few times, but never really had anything where I thought they might be gone," Adams said. "It's kind of surprising, I guess."
Then, of course, he knocked on the wood again.
Hockey players are a superstitious bunch, and teeth are not a trifling matter.
Matt Cooke is missing a couple of front teeth, but his grill work can't compare to that of forward Chris Conner.
Conner is missing his two front teeth, the result of an accident that also cost him another less visible tooth.
"It took me about six games pro," Conner said. "I came out of college and I didn't really have a mouth guard in college because you wear the cage (facemask). I didn't wear a mouth guard. Next thing you know, I got a puck in the teeth and there they go. I figured it was going to happen sometime."
It was a clean break, Conner said.
"Roots and all," he said.
"I got a pass from my own guy, cross-ice," Conner said. "I saw it coming but with the cage in college, I didn't react to it. It came and hit me right in the mouth. I came to the bench and the trainer asked me if I had teeth before. I said yeah, and he said, 'Well, you don't have them any more.'"
Jordan Staal said he has all of his teeth, which he attributes to wearing a mouth guard.
Center Mark Letestu still has his teeth, but sheepishly admits he doesn't wear a mouth guard.
"I've never liked it," he said.
But most players would counsel young hockey players to embrace the mouth guard.
"I think it's foolish not to wear one," Rupp said. "I've gotten hit a lot in the mouth. I've gotten punches in the mouth, pucks, sticks. If I didn't wear one, I would have no teeth."
Question of the week
How many text messages do you send in an average day?
Jordan Staal: "I'd have to say 20 to 25. Depends on how much my girlfriend wants to talk."
Craig Adams: "When I'm at home, I might send none. I might talk to a buddy or text my mom, something like that. When I'm on the road, maybe two or three or four."
Mark Letestu: "Maybe 20. Mostly it's with the wife. There's not a lot of texting in my house."
Mike Rupp: "I range anywhere from anywhere from 20 to 100. Yesterday was a day off, so I only had four. On the road, I communicate a lot with my wife that way because she's busy with the kids."
Chris Conner: "I'm not a huge text message person. Probably in a day, maybe 20 or 30."
How dominant was Sidney Crosby's half of a season?
Crosby played 41 games, exactly 50 percent of the NHL season. He hasn't played since Jan. 5, two months and nearly two weeks ago.
Yet his 32 goals are still ninth in the NHL, and he's only six goals behind second place. Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos leads the league with 43 goals.