It’s not pain I remember; it’s fear.
In fact, it never hurt. Not from the moment the puck hit my jaw with a dull thud, to when I talked and the sides of my jaw moved independently, or when I woke up in wires, full of morphine.
But man, was I scared. Potential disfigurement, wires and surgeries, waiting for the pain I assumed was coming…everything about it was scary.
Last night, Dion Phaneuf got a slapshot in the face from much farther away than I did, and in a slightly better spot, but still, it was a scary sight to see. I thought of my incident when Sean Couturier got hit behind the ear just a couple weeks ago too.
Guys shoot the puck high by default now; that’s just the way it is. Goaltenders take away the bottom of the net using the butterfly, so if you’re a defenseman hoping to score goals, much like the goat in an Adam Sandler skit, your options are pretty f***in’ limited. Because of that, we’re not going to see less of these injuries, we’re going to see more. That’s a scary piece of logic right there.
I had passed the puck from the corner up to my own defenseman during the first shift of the second period in an ECHL game vs. Alaska (I was with the Idaho Steelheads, and it just happened to be my birthday). There were three skaters between me and the tender, so the plan was to hustle around that pile and get to the net for a screen.
The defenseman pulled the puck off the wall, and had zero defenders. He dragged it to the middle (as a good defenseman should), and headed down Broadway. Some guys in the ECHL don’t pass well. Some don’t skate well. Some don’t shoot well. This guy, unfortunately, did not have the latter problem.
He wound up to go top shelf with a clapper right as I beat the pile to the net, got to the front, and turned to see where the shot was coming from. That’s when it hit me in the side of the jaw without deflection. Just, clean.
I slid on the fresh ice from in front of the net to the far boards, conscious the whole way. I remember lying there face down, running my tongue over my no-longer intact bottom row of teeth, and saying the word ”okay,” as in, “okay, here we go.”
I knew I had a lot of misery ahead of me, so it was time to get off the ice and figure out what the hell was up with my face. I was scared, and irritated that the doctors in the medical room weren’t more urgent, interested or otherwise. I didn’t want “didn’t act soon enough” to be the reason I was missing half my face for the rest of my life.
In the end, my jaw had broken dead clean down the center of my chin, so the two sides moved independently. I have a four-screw X-shaped plate in there. On the side where the puck hit, it spider-webbed. I had a ten-screw plate there which was eventually removed due to multiple infections (and I lost a chunk of bone in the process).
Here’s me three days later:
I drank liquid oxycodone like it was water for an extended period of time, and I started the now defunct blog jtbourne.wordpress.com to fill the months I was mostly wired-up and couch-bound, unable to exert any energy. I never played another professional hockey game, and suddenly find myself doing this full time.
When I watch professional hockey now, three years later, I wince every time I see guys bomb a puck into a mass of traffic and hope for a “seeing-eye” goal.
The game isn’t going to change. Maybe in twenty years guys will rock full cages and we won’t have to worry so much, but that’s decades from being a reality. For now, we accept there’s a risk of injury when you play the game, and it can happen to anyone.
Unfortunately, inevitably, it’s going to start happening to more people.
Somewhere along the way I read an article about a different puck that wouldn’t do so much damage (though I have no idea how that’d be possible). People like myself have railed for mandatory visors. Someday something will have to change because of a grim reality: we’re just stepping into the newest injury trend that, while infrequent, can and will be gruesome. It’s a prediction I’m not excited to make.
But, Dion Phaneuf is set to make his return tomorrow night, by all accounts. He got lucky. I just fear that someday, with the strength of players, the quality of sticks and our need to shoot high, that someone out there may not be as lucky as he and I were.