It's a macabre piece of trivia, but one that hockey fans know well: The NHL has only ever had one player fatality from an on-ice incident. That distinction is held by Bill Masterton, a Minnesota North Star who died in 1968 after suffering a head injury during a game.
Masterton had just cut across the blue line when Oakland Seals defensemen Larry Cahan and Ron Harris closed in. Witnesses described the resulting collision as forceful but routine, a clean hockey hit. But Masterton, who like most players of the day was not wearing a helmet, went down and his head hit the ice. It was clear right away that something was very wrong. Masterton was rushed to a local hospital, where he died two days later.1
Cahan died in 1992. Harris, who retired in 1976, spoke of the incident in 2003 with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "It bothers you the rest of your life," he told the paper.
Since 1968, all of hockey's most frightening moments have had the same ostensibly happy ending: A smiling player, damaged but on the road to recovery, assuring the fans that he'll be OK. We hear familiar stories about the heroic work of trainers and team doctors. Inevitably somebody will mention, in appropriately hushed tones, that a tragedy may have been averted by just a few seconds here or a fraction of an inch there. And then we all just move on.
As Clint Malarchuk's story reminds us, those endings aren't always as happy as we're led to believe.
But while an injured player will always deserve sympathy and support, it's easy to forget that he might not be the only one who walks away from an incident with a scar. Whenever a new entry is added to hockey's growing list of near misses, there's inevitably another name attached: the player who caused the injury.
For Malarchuk, that second name is Steve Tuttle. On a March night in 1989, the St. Louis Blues forward was driving to the net when he was knocked off-balance and went into the crease with a skate raised. It was a fluke play, and nobody could blame Tuttle for what the next few seconds would bring. But from that moment on, Steve Tuttle's name has been forever linked to Clint Malarchuk's.
"I am forever grateful for Clint's strength the night of the accident and the way he helped support me the few times we met after the accident by telling jokes etc.," Tuttle wrote in an e-mail to Grantland. "It has meant a lot to me also how he has discussed the incident when it re airs once in a while usually when a similar event occurs. He always put a positive spin on it."
This generation's hockey fans can recall more than a few of those similar events. Five years ago, it was Florida's Richard Zednik who stirred memories of Malarchuk during a game in Buffalo. One moment, the Panthers' winger was skating past a routine collision in the corner. The next, he was sprinting to the bench with his hands clutched over his throat as blood sprayed the ice. His external carotid artery had been sliced.
[Warning: This clip contains graphic footage.]
Replays showed that the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen, who was momentarily tangled up with a Sabres player, came up and inadvertently clipped Zednik. Jokinen, the Panthers captain, wanted the game stopped, but play resumed once league officials received word that Zednik's condition was stable at a Buffalo hospital. At one point during the delay, a Zamboni came out to clean the ice.2
After the game, a reporter asked Jokinen how scary the incident was for him.
"What do you think?" a stunned Jokinen responded. "What kind of fucking question is that?"
In the immediate aftermath of Zednik's injury, Jokinen's response was certainly understandable. (Through a spokesman for his current team, the Winnipeg Jets, Jokinen declined to be interviewed for this story.) But it's difficult not to wonder: What can it be like to have a standard hockey play, one you may have been part of a thousand times before, suddenly go so terribly wrong? What goes through your mind when you've just caused one of the most horrific moments in hockey history? What's it like to be a Steve Tuttle or an Olli Jokinen?
Chris Therien is one of the few players who can answer that question.
"I'm not overly fond of talking about it," Therien said this week. "I will say it was my worst day in hockey."
It was January 29, 2000, midway through the second period of a Saturday afternoon game in Montreal. Therien was manning the point for Philadelphia when a failed centering pass ricocheted off the halfboards and directly to him.
"It was one of those ones where you're licking your chops saying Man, I'm going to step into this thing," recalls Therien, a former defenseman who is now the Flyers' radio analyst. "And I did.
"And out of nowhere I remember Trent McCleary going kind of face-first, almost this really awkward block. I can still picture it in my own head, really clear, and will remain clear to me probably forever."
McCleary, a 27-year-old Canadiens forward, had dropped down to block the shot. It was a typical defensive play, one that a forward may be called on to make several times a game. But the speed of the puck coming off the boards and directly into Therien's one-timer seemed to throw the angles of the play off, and when McCleary slid to the ice he was vulnerable.
"The shot went off the end of my stick, and for that split second it was like it was going in slow motion," Therien recalls. "And I could just see, it hit him right square in the throat."
As McCleary slid along the ice after the impact, his momentum carried him into Therien's skates. The defenseman can still remember what went through his mind at that moment: "Holy Jesus. That's bad. This has got to be bad."
"Because I just fired that thing 100 miles an hour. That's as hard as I can shoot the puck," Therien said.
"And then I heard the gasping of the air.
"I'm saying somebody hurry, this guy's in really, really bad shape. And that gasp of air, that hoarse gasp of him not being able to breathe, I knew there was something very, very serious, and they had to do something very quickly."
The force of the shot had fractured McCleary's larynx, crushing his windpipe and leaving him unable to breathe. After a few seconds, McCleary got to his feet and hurried off the ice with the aid of a trainer. He made it to the bench, but collapsed in the tunnel. Within minutes, he was receiving an emergency tracheotomy at a nearby hospital.
The game resumed — Therien says he can't remember any details or even the final score — and the Flyers bench received no further updates on McCleary's condition. After the game, Therien met with the media to discuss what he assumed had been a serious injury. He thought he had prepared himself for the worst. He hadn't.
"It wasn't until after the hockey game [when] I realized how grave the situation might be for Trent," Therien said. "I had a couple of reporters immediately come to me, and they said 'Listen, you understand there's a possibility Trent McCleary may die in the hospital?'"
He remembers getting dressed quickly, then sneaking away to the area in the arena that houses the TV trucks and finding a live feed of CBC. The broadcasters were talking about McCleary being in critical condition
"I was devastated. I was just devastated," Therien recalls. "I remember shedding a tear behind that truck, saying, 'Come on, please, you can't die here. Please don't die.'"
The Flyers boarded a postgame flight to Washington without knowing McCleary's status. Therien remembers then–Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke calling him to the front of the plane to console him. Only after they landed did they receive the news: McCleary would survive.
It took months of operations and therapy before McCleary could speak again. That fall he attempted to resume his career at training camp, but struggled to complete a shift. The injury had left his airway too narrow to play hockey. Chris Therien's slap shot would be the last play of Trent McCleary's NHL career.
Injuries are a risk in every sport, but hockey is different. No pro sport this side of auto racing puts its athletes at risk of sudden catastrophic, or even fatal, injury like hockey does. And unlike a fiery crash at the stockyard, hockey's most dangerous plays often seem harmless.
"It amazing that, of all the malintent, all the things you might try to do to injure guys or throw them off their game," Therien said, "those are three injuries you talk about — [McCleary], Zednik, and Malarchuk — that had nothing to do with any malintent at all."
A player tripped awkwardly in the corner. A goalmouth collision. A blocked shot. Unremarkable moments, barely worth noticing, right up until it becomes clear that something has gone horribly wrong. And then one player is down, then surrounded, then rushed away by the people who will work to save his life. And another player is left behind, to sort through how it all could have happened.
There's no blueprint for what comes next. Therien says he tried to contact McCleary after the incident but didn't hear back, which he says he can understand. Thirteen years later, he says, the two have never spoken to each other about the play.
When Zednik met with the media days after his neck was slashed, he talked about reaching out to Jokinen to make sure his friend and teammate would be OK. But Jokinen struggled on the ice in the weeks after the incident, going through a slump and acknowledging that he was troubled by what had happened.
And Tuttle? He was out of the NHL less than two years after he slid through the Sabres' crease. When commenting on the incident for this piece, he did not focus on himself.
"Everyone I ever talked to who knew or played with Clint had amazing things to say about him. I am so glad he was saved that night," Tuttle wrote in his e-mail. "I think it was a miracle as well as the most unbelievably amazing medical work by the trainer who I am forever grateful for. That and Clint's will to survive.
"I don't think I have much more to add to [the] story and would probably like to leave it here."