ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The stubbly beard of Colorado Avalanche defenceman Ryan O’Byrne conceals the pinkish cut that required 100 stitches to close.
Attempts to, anyway.
The whiskers can’t fully hide the severe wound.
O’Byrne was caught flush in the face by the sharp skate of Edmonton’s Taylor Hall early in a game two weeks ago, causing a gash that begins just above the left side of his mouth and snakes downward from there.
He needed 30 stitches on the outside of his cheek to close the wound and 70 more inside.
Still, he considers himself fortunate. The skate narrowly avoided a nerve in his face and completely missed his eye or neck. He said after practice Monday “it could have been worse, for sure.”
O’Byrne is even scheduled to return to the lineup Tuesday night in Minnesota, wearing a caged helmet to provide added protection for his face.
“I feel good, really good,” O’Byrne said. “There will be a little bit of a scar, but everything considered it’s not too bad. Got the 5 o’clock shadow going for a bit.”
He’s watched the replays, just to piece together what exactly happened.
For him, that moment remains pretty much a blur.
On the play, Hall attempted to jump over the stick of forward Matt Duchene in the Avalanche end. As the Oilers rookie was falling, his right skate rose into the air, striking O’Byrne squarely on the cheek.
“There’s not much you can do. It happens pretty quickly,” he explained.
So stunned was O’Byrne after being hit, he remained on the ice to finish his shift as blood dripped from his mouth. With his adrenaline surging, O’Byrne said he really didn’t feel anything.
Fellow defenceman John-Michael Liles finally broke him out of his trance, yelling at O’Byrne to head back to the bench.
Once there, O’Byrne realized it was probably worse than he imagined. The horrified looks of his teammates told him the true story.
“All the coaches and all the players were staring at me with their jaws dropped. It was kind of like, ‘Maybe it’s pretty bad,'” said O’Byrne, who was acquired from Montreal on Nov. 11. “Once I got in the trainer’s room, they put a towel on me, kind of wrapped my face like a mummy. Once I got in the ambulance, I sat down and just relaxed. That’s when it started throbbing.”
O’Byrne underwent three hours of surgery to fix his mouth.
In the days after, he was restricted to a diet of soft foods—pudding, yogurt and shakes—and wasn’t permitted to speak.
“The first four or five days weren’t too much fun,” O’Byrne said. “But I’ve gotten to the point where I can pretty much eat fully now.”
Not to mention fully digest what might have happened, knowing this could have ended up a lot worse.
Three years ago, Richard Zednik was playing for the Florida Panthers when teammate Olli Jokinen’s skate flew up and cut Zednik’s neck, the blade stopping just short of his jugular vein.
A trail of blood followed Zednik as he raced to the Panthers bench and was escorted to an ambulance. It took an hour for doctors to reconnect his carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain.
Two decades earlier, Buffalo goalie Clint Malarchuk had his neck slashed in a similar accident.
“The neck, we’ve seen it before—so I was fortunate,” said O’Byrne, who plans to wear the caged helmet for the rest of the season. “It’s a tough sport, a dangerous sport—pucks, sticks, skates—it’s not easy.
“You see guys who have played for 20 years and their faces are pretty cut up. This is just another one for the collection.”