MIAMI – Florida coach Pete DeBoer was jotting down a note, then he looked up and saw Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun sprawled out on the Atlanta ice, writhing in pain.
“I really didn’t understand what happened,” DeBoer said Tuesday.
Florida defenceman Keith Ballard had accidentally whacked Vokoun with his stick, cutting the goalie’s ear during an act of frustration after Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk scored. Ballard was aiming for the goal, but instead got a piece of Vokoun’s head.
Vokoun was carted off the ice on a stretcher and taken to an Atlanta-area hospital. Vokoun needed several stitches, but travelled with the team back to South Florida. Immediately after the incident, however, Ballard looked like he could have used a Prozac.
ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose called the incident “maybe the stupidest thing I’ve seen in my life.”
Ballard, who was visibly shaken after the incident, will not be disciplined for his errant swipe, the team said Tuesday. He spoke with Vokoun and his teammates on the Panthers’ return flight Monday night, DeBoer said, and no “hard feelings” linger.
“It was a heat of the moment play,” DeBoer said. “It’s not how you want to handle your frustrations. I’m sure Keith Ballard will never do it again.”
NHL spokesman Frank Brown said in an email that “supplemental discipline” is assessed for actions that are taken against opponents – meaning Ballard would have possibly been fined or suspended had he lashed out in anger and accidentally struck a member of the Thrashers.
“But it wasn’t against an opponent,” Brown said.
Aside from a sore ear, it appears Vokoun has no other medical problems. He didn’t suffer any internal ear damage from the blow and there were no neurological issues, the team said. The Panthers, already without stars David Booth (concussion) and Cory Stillman (knee), hope to have Vokoun back in the lineup as soon as they can get a helmet over his stitched-up ear.
The incident occurred after Kovalchuk’s scored a goal at 8:54 of the first period, knocking in his own rebound. Ballard then swung his stick toward the net after the goal, Vokoun dropped down, hands on head, and play stalled for about 10 minutes.
“The message to everybody out there is that’s not how we want to handle things,” DeBoer said.
Ballard was not available Tuesday as the Panthers had the day off. Florida has a morning skate on Wednesday before playing Colorado Wednesday night.
A message left with Ballard’s agent was not immediately returned.
Ballard’s former coach at the University of Minnesota said he knows that nobody feels worse about that happened than Ballard.
“I feel sick for Keith because I know the type of person (he is),” said Don Lucia.
Ballard is an unassuming, 208-pound defenceman who plays the game with passion and carries himself with a team-first mentality, Lucia said. The hardworking Minnesotan is also often available to speak with reporters, but didn’t after Monday’s game.
“There’s no pretence, there’s no arrogance, there’s no cockiness at all,” Lucia said. “He comes from the Minnesotan border from parents who are great people … This one incident shouldn’t impact him as a player and a person in a negative way. Something that was so unintentional. Because I’d take a team of Keith Ballards any day.”
Ballard’s ill-advised act is the second notable fluke injury for Panthers in two years. During a Feb. 10, 2008, game in Buffalo, former Florida forward Richard Zednik’s neck was sliced with a teammate’s skate blade. He lost five pints of blood and underwent emergency surgery.
Vokoun’s injury, though, is more reminiscent of a incident with the Rangers in 1979, when New York defenceman Dave Maloney hit goalie John Davidson with a stick, causing a leg injury that left Davidson sidelined for a few games.
“It’s just something that happens,” said Davidson, now the team president of the St. Louis Blues. “But there’s still things that can be learned.”
Davidson said the incident is a reminder about the importance of controlling emotions for players, and said Ballard shouldn’t face a suspension because of the injury, calling that idea “way above and beyond.”
“Maybe Keith can take (Vokoun) to dinner once he feels better,” he said.