Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – Gary Bettman has done much to change
the tenor of National Hockey League contests in the last decade by encouraging
the enaction of a set of minor rules and regulations instituted to curb the
prevalence of fighting and its lasting effects on those who made careers out
of boxing on ice.
He’s taken every opportunity to promote the Board of Governors’ efforts
to stem the rising tide of hits to the head which swirled in the middle
portion of the last decade, so that future players would not see their careers
ruined in a split-second of well-executed timing and poor sportsmanship as in
the case of Marc Savard.
But there’s one type of danger to the livelihood of NHL players from the
superstar to the 23rd man which still exists in gruesome quantities, that
neither Bettman, the 30 owners, nor coaching staffs can accurately predict or
plan for: that of injuries which result from skate cuts.
Stars defenseman Patrik Nemeth will be lost for the remainder of the season
after suffering what can only be surmised as such a deep laceration of his arm
that surgery and rehabilitation would take months at the minimum. It all
happened in several frantic seconds in the first period of Saturday’s 6-5
overtime home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
In a scrum along the right-wing boards in the neutral zone, right in front of
the Flyers’ bench, Nemeth and R.J. Umberger battled for a loose puck. Both men
fell to the ice, but as Nemeth arose, he skated slowly, his left hand holding
his right, whose hand was obviously drooping at the wrist. Nemeth was rushed
by team personnel into the locker room, a towel wrapped tightly around his arm
at the point of the injury.
Slow-motion replay revealed the grim details. As Umberger fell uncontrolled,
with Nemeth above him, the former’s skate made contact with the latter’s arm
in a freak happenstance.
“I think it involves everything,” Stars head coach Lindy Ruff said to the
Dallas Morning News on Monday. “When I say severe, that’s probably an
understatement. First and foremost, for his sake, I hope it’s a full
As with all professional sports performed at top speeds or at weights and
muscle mass higher than the average person, there is inherent risk in
participating. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect a player to assume the
ultimate danger in the course of action, whether intentional or accidental.
Hockey players are particularly susceptible to the random chance of a harmful
meeting with a knife edge, plying their trade on razor-sharp blades less
than an inch thick and hurling their bodies at each other with little regard
for angle of attack and posture.
The results are always disastrous.
A skate blade from Hall-of-Fame L.A. King Marcel Dionne managed to make
contact near several crucial arteries of Rick MacLeish on April 1, 1978, when
the high-scoring Philadelphia winger dove to block a pass and instead wound up
bleeding over every towel the equipment managers had on the bench. The impact
of the injury was in no way diminished when MacLeish later quipped: “I didn’t
realize I was in trouble until I took a drag of a cigarette and the smoke came
out of my neck.”
March 22, 1989 in Buffalo: Following a goalmouth collision with Blues winger
Steve Tuttle, Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk emerged from the scrum with
his jugular vein slashed wide open and bleeding profusely on the ice with
every pulse. In an interview 20 years after the incident, Malarchuk’s mother
said she felt like she was watching her son die.
February 11, 2008 in Sunrise, FL: Panthers forward Richard Zednik’s carotid
artery was cut by the accidental brush from a skate of teammate Olli Jokinen,
who was dragged down by a Sabres defender along the end boards. Zednik went on
to liken the sudden rush of pain to a stabbing, and noted the realization of
exactly what was happening to him heightening his fear that he wouldn’t get to
see his daughter grow up.
Donald Audette nearly had his career ended and his right hand rendered useless
on December 1, 2001 in Montreal, when the then-Canadiens forward suffered a
traumatic cut to his right wrist from the skate of Rangers forward Radek
Dvorak. The image of Audette, pained and panicked as he skated to the bench
and attempted to hold his hand steady as all tendons but one were severed, is
“It was not too pretty,” said Audette, who finally retired in 2004. “I had
nightmares the first few nights after it happened. I would look down at my arm
and every time the artery pumped, blood was pumping out of my arm. “About two
hours after the surgery the doctors told my family I was out of danger, so I
guess that means I was in danger. But as I look back on the play, I probably
would do the same thing again. It was a freak accident. I hope to be able to
find a spot where I don’t have that fear.”
Who would have thought a potentially-tragic injury could happen in warmups,
when the pace of loosening up is considerably slower than the game itself?
Nobody, until Edmontons Taylor Hall ended up with Frankenstein-like
scar wending its way from his forehead to the temples and near his part thanks
to an ill-timed meeting with teammate Corey Potter’s skate on January 17,
Flyers forward Brayden Schenn miraculously escaped a worse fate last season,
when he was slashed in the torso by Devils winger Dainius Zubrus when Zubrus
was torqued sideways by contact between the two. Amazing that he didn’t suffer
more than a superficial cut, even more amazing that battlefield care required
nothing more than airplane glue to close the wound.
All of those were accidental occurrences. One which stands out as an egregious
violation of hockey ethics, happened on February 13, 2013 in Pittsburgh, as
Penguins master of mayhem Matt Cooke appeared to intentionally stab at the
back of Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson’s leg with his skate blade. Karlsson
had a potential Norris Trophy-level season derailed and his Achilles tendon
nearly severed due to Cooke’s effort.
“I’ve played long enough to know who’s going to hit you and who’s not,” said
an understandably bitter Karlsson more than a week later. “As I always do, I
moved at the last second and he missed me, but he still went for me. He
reached out his leg, which I don’t think he had any reason to do. I don’t
understand why it happened. He had full control of his body, and he knows
exactly what he’s doing out there. That’s why I’m sitting here with my leg in
In the aftermath of the Karlsson imbroglio, more players gravitated towards
the use of Kevlar socks to prevent the possibility of the macabre. Of course,
it’s not a significant majority, and the furor quickly died. If an equipment
manufacturer could produce an effective Kevlar-based flak jacket or pants,
they’d better do it now.
Kevlar jerseys won’t add any more bulk to a skater’s largesse, but Kevlar
isn’t a total panacea. There’s still the matter of exposed skin between the
uniform sleeve and the glove along with unprotected areas of the face even
with a half-shield and the torso if a player chooses to wear nothing beneath a
Nemeth, at 22 years of age, will almost certainly come back just as strong as
he was before the unkindest cut. However, to truly find a way to eliminate the
majority of these incidents, the players themselves have to keep these gory
injuries in mind when finding consensus on issues like implementing mandatory
Bettman should take note: though lawyers may try, they can’t legislate random
happenstance. He’s got greater protection of players through fists and sticks
and elbows, now it’s time for the league as a whole to seriously consider the
question of protection from skates.