Richard Zednik’s blood-dripping trek to the bench Sunday night certainly hit home for Trent McCleary.
The former Montreal Canadiens player saw the images on his TV screen and couldn’t help but think of his own experience, when he was left battling for his life after taking a slapshot in the throat.
“All of sudden I was flooded with memories,” McLeary told The Canadian Press on Monday. “It’s frightening.”
McLeary, now an investment adviser in Swift Current, Sask., still has trouble breathing and some of his vocal cords are permanently damaged.
But he’s happy just to be alive after the January 2000 incident in Montreal. For that he has repeatedly thanked the Canadiens’ medical and training staff on hand that day at the Bell Centre.
“And yet again it was the case with Richard last night, and it was the same with Clint Malarchuk’s incident (in 1989) and my incident, the medical staff and the people that work in the buildings are just phenomenal,” said the 35-year-old McLeary, whose career ended on the play. “They’re amazing and they potentially saved his life.”
Zednik was listed in stable condition in the intensive care unit at Buffalo General Hospital on Monday. The Florida Panthers forward required life-saving surgery after severing his carotid artery when the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen came up and cut him in the throat.
The incident, replayed on TV screens around North America, could possibly have been less serious had Zednik been wearing a neck protector – a must for players in minor hockey in Canada but a rarity for NHLers.
“There was an incident in Sweden over 10 years ago where the guy passed away with kind of the same type of injury and neck guards were made mandatory in the Swedish league for a while,” Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin recalled Monday.
“We’re out there and the skates are certainly like knives on our feet and you’ve got to be aware out there. … There’s always freak accidents like that. You have to be aware that the skates are very dangerous.”
Just as visors aren’t mandated in the NHL, neither are neck protectors. That’s the jurisdiction of the NHL Players’ Association and the union has always respected its members’ desire for individual choice when it comes to protection.
“We are pleased by the positive medical reports on Richard and are hopeful for his quick recovery,” NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly said in a statement Monday. “The NHLPA will review this matter in detail and will continue to ensure that our members are fully educated about all aspects of on-ice safety.”
Despite the gruesome nature of Zednik’s incident, one would be hard-pressed to find many NHLers wanting to mandate neck protectors, wanting instead to reserve the right to decide how much protection they want to wear.
Veteran goalie Olaf Kolzig of the Washington Capitals, while very concerned for his former teammate Zednik, echoed that sentiment.
“You know what, it’s hockey,” Kolzig told The Canadian Press. “When was the last time this happened? Freak things happen, whether it’s sports or whether you’re walking across the street and you get hit by a car. That’s life. You can’t protect against everything. That was just such a freakish play.
“It should be left up to the players. It’s a dangerous sport, you can’t protect them from everything. It’s just fortunate that he’s OK.”
Veteran centre Jeremy Roenick of the San Jose Sharks agreed with Kolzig and said you can’t totally protect players in such a violent sport.
“We play this game for the love of it and we play it knowing the dangers are there,” said Roenick. “It’s like a race car driver. You try to make everything safer but somebody’s going to get injured in an accident no matter what and they still do it anyway.”
Leafs head coach Paul Maurice wonders where the line would be drawn if players were forced to wear neck protectors.
“It’s neck guards, then it’s going to be full face shields and those all make sense,” he said. “Bigger shin pads, bigger shoulder pads, wrap yourself in a mattress and away you go. I mean, I don’t know what the end point is. …
“It’s a fast sport with sticks, blades and frozen pucks. There’s going to be some bumps and bruises, that’s for sure.”
McCleary also respects a player’s individual choice to decide what kind of protection he wants to wear but wonders if the real change won’t come from a third party rather than the NHL and NHLPA.
“The one thing that surprises me is not the NHL or the NHLPA, but insurance companies,” said McLeary. “Why wouldn’t Lloyd’s of London say, ‘I will lawyer your personal insurance policy if you wear a visor’? Then see how many guys put visors on.”
Zednik’s injury was similar to the one Malarchuk suffered in March 1989. The Buffalo Sabres goalie had his jugular vein severed when St. Louis Blues forward Steve Tuttle was upended while skating toward the crease and caught him with a skate. Malarchuk required over 300 stitches but spent only one night in the hospital, playing in a game less than two weeks later.
McCleary nearly died after taking a slapshot from Philadelphia’s Chris Therien in the throat in a January 2000 game. He underwent surgery twice to repair a complex fracture of the larynx. Doctors said he would have died had he not had a tracheotomy.
Just like Zednik, McCleary amazingly raced to the bench on the play, which saved valuable seconds.
“Richard had the wherewithal to get to the bench as well,” said McCleary. “You think, ‘Well, laying on the ice isn’t going to do any good.’ Once I realized I couldn’t breathe, I said, ‘I got to get out of here.’ You go where the help is. Richard skated 80 feet almost – it’s just instinct.”
Zednik was skating into the right corner of the Sabres’ zone when Jokinen was dumped by Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur. Jokinen fell head-first to the ice, and his right leg flew up and struck Zednik directly on the side of the neck. He clutched his neck while racing to the bench.
“It’s one of those things that happens from time to time in the game,” said Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker. “It’s a freak thing. It was nice to see he was able to get off the ice and get the necessary medical stuff looked after and that it didn’t cause too much harm.”
Said Leafs teammate Matt Stajan, the team’s NHLPA player rep: “It took a guy to get flipped upside down and his skates to come flying up into the air for that to happen so to say you’ve got to make changes and stuff to make it more safe it would be a lot of work. I’m sure people are going to talk about it now.
“The main thing is he’s OK. I think it’s important for the league to move forward and I think they’re going to look into stuff.”r