TORONTO - When Alexandre Bilodeau finished his high-flying Olympic freestyle moguls event to win the gold medal, his smile showed more than just joy at taking top spot on the podium.
What flashed at Canadians was the bright white of his mouth guard - and experts say there couldn't have been a better advertisement for the importance of wearing that little bit of hardware to protect the teeth, mouth and jaw from injury while engaging in high-impact sports.
That's certainly the message of the Canadian Dental Association, which foresees a big surge in children and teens, in particular, trying to emulate Olympic athletes on skis, snowboards and skates.
"I think it's aimed at everybody that's involved in a sport that can cause facial injury," says CDA president Dr. Don Friedlander, "but most importantly with the young people (is) to get them used to wearing mouth guards and understanding that, you know what, their heroes wear them, it's cool to wear one, it's smart to wear one."
Mouth guards, typically worn over only the upper teeth, can prevent potentially serious injuries from falls on the slopes, rink or other surfaces, or from being lambasted by a hockey stick, for instance.
Smashing face-first into hard-packed snow or ice can cause a range of injuries, from broken or dislodged teeth to a lacerated tongue and lips to a fractured jaw, says Friedlander, an Ottawa dentist.
"One of the traumas that I see, after 30 years of practice, is people when their jaw's hit with something or they fall and it bangs forward, they can often get their lip caught between their teeth," he says. "And that's where one of the major traumas of the lip or tongue or the inside of the cheek happens, where you actually bite yourself."
"I've seen others that actually have broken off a piece of tooth and we find it buried in the lip somewhere," he says. "If you're careening down a mountain at 60 K an hour, there's all kinds of damage that can happen."
Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, says the organization started requiring its elite athletes to wear mouth guards while training and competing about a decade ago.
"The mouth guards provide a cushion between the teeth," says Judge, noting that the upper and lower chompers can slam together as skiers bump down a moguls run at high speed or while airborne performing a gravity-defying trick.
"First and foremost, we strongly recommend that mouth guards are used at any level, particularly at those younger levels, because being less skilled athletes, the propensity or the probability that something can happen is higher."
Judge, based in Vancouver, says the national organization and its provincial counterparts have freestyle skiers that range from six-year-olds in the "bumps and jumps" entry level to five-time Olympic veterans.
Recreational participants are strongly advised to wear mouth guards when they take to the slopes, he says. "In the high performance program it's mandatory."
Mouth guards, sported by Olympic competitors engaging in everything from skiing and snowboarding to skeleton and speed skating, are made of a type of plastic designed to absorb and dissipate force when the upper and lower jaws bang together.
"It's not 100 per cent protection," Friedlander says of mouth guards, "but we see a huge advantage, a huge reduction in injury."
The gizmos can be as simple as over-the-counter stock mouth guards, sold at most sporting goods stores, which come in a few sizes and are placed over the teeth "as is."
Giving a somewhat more individual fit is the "boil and bite" type, made from a horseshoe-shaped plastic template that becomes pliable when heated in water. The wearer bites into the softened plastic, which moulds around the teeth before hardening into the required shape.
Friedlander recommends custom-fitted models made by dentists, saying they provide better all-round protection and greater durability.
Making a mouth guard is a pretty simple exercise: the dentist takes moulds of the upper and lower teeth and does a "bite registration" test to ensure a snug, comfortable fit. The gadget can be ready in as little as 24 hours, he says, and costs in the $100 range.
Mouth guards can be clear or plain white - or any colour of the rainbow, it seems. Some elite and professional athletes go all out, wrapping their teeth in neon-coloured or highly decorated mouth guards that become part of their signature gear.
Friedlander says recreational athletes should view mouth guards the same way as they do helmets that prevent concussion and severe head trauma.
"Look at hockey players and you see them all wearing mouth guards. It's what you do. You put on a helmet, you put in a mouth guard."
"We see everybody's looking at sports at the moment," he says of the Olympic Games in Vancouver. "So here's an opportunity to say: Look, the pros are doing it, your heroes are doing it. It's the right thing to do."