HOCKEY ETCHES ITSELF on its players — the scars left by sticks, pucks, skates and fists are a road map for every career. These are but a few of the many reminders, in flesh, of this NHL season, and players’ reflections on what it means in hockey to wear a scar.
Jump to a player:
Matt Calvert, Blue Jackets left winger
Injury: Nick Holden slap shot to the eyebrow in a 4-2 win over the Rangers, Nov. 18
Damage: 36 stitches
Time missed: Returned to score winning goal
“THERE WAS NO warning. None. As a winger, it’s my job to get in shot lanes and block shots. Out where I was, waist-high is pretty standard for a slap shot and you almost never see a puck rise that fast. The people who were there tell me the sound the puck made is what they remember, the impact of it. I don’t remember hearing anything. One second I was moving into the lane, the next second I was down on the ice. I moved my helmet just a little and, blood. Not a drop or two. A straight line, pouring blood. I’ve had cuts and stitches before and you dab at it and see a little blood and go, oh, I guess I’m cut. But I’ve seen very few cuts where that much blood came out that fast. It was crazy.
“By then, our head athletic trainer was there and he gave me a towel and said, ‘You’ve got quite a gash on your forehead, put the towel on it and don’t take it off.’ For me, the only big fear was my eye. I mean, another inch down and it could have been, would have been, my eye. Our trainer urged me to stay down longer, but you know it’s ingrained in us from day one in hockey that you never lay down on the ice unless you absolutely have to.
“My dad’s not a hockey guy, but he’s a proud, hard-working guy — so is my mom — and they always taught me, too, never be the kid that stays down for no reason. It’s a reaction and an instinct we’re all taught as kids: never lay down on the ice for the show, get up. I grew up watching old-school hockey guys — we all learned from watching them, they passed it down — the idea that to be a hockey player you have to be tough. So when it’s your turn you want to be like the old-time guys, to react like them and prove yourself, kind of, to carry on the culture. It’s a culture I’m very proud to be part of. So I got up right away and skated off, through the locker room and straight to the dentist-type chair in the doc’s room. There were quite a few doctors already waiting in there for me.
“I asked to see it quickly so they brought me a small mirror and I glanced at it. It was actually worse than I expected. My entire forehead was just kind of flapped open. The doc really said it best, he goes, ‘Hey, wow, I can see all the way down to your skull!’
“The stitches just went in layer by layer. A lot of them were used to sew the muscle back together. The doc finished stitching me up a few minutes into the third then I went through the concussion protocol and everything was fine. I was still running on pure adrenaline and actually feeling great. You almost wish you get that kind of pick-me-up every night. They were worried about my forehead getting torn apart again. So they wrapped it up in this big white wrapping all around my head and added some padding to my helmet but even then our head trainer wasn’t so sure. I just said, ‘Look, if I’m going, I’m going like this, we’re not gonna unwrap and wrap it again, I’m not wasting any more time, let’s go finish this game.’
“The guys on the bench all had a chuckle looking at me all wrapped up like that; you don’t see that too often. But they welcomed me back. It felt like they were pretty pumped up to see me. There were a few, F—in-A rights! Not just me, but whenever you see any teammate come back from an injury or a fight or see a guy battle through something it energizes the entire bench and gives you momentum, and that kind of stuff, it really is a big part of our game. I think Nick Holden, the guy who shot the puck, was pretty happy to see me come back, too. We’re old friends. No one is ever happy to lose but maybe a small part of him was a little bit happy for me and the way everything turned out.
“Because something like this can scar you and not just on the surface. As I headed back out on the ice, I wondered if I would be hesitant. If I had to block a shot, would I flinch or cover my face? But on my first shift back, nothing changed. I got a few hits in and that helped me get back into the game. Then it’s 2-2 and we were on the penalty kill. It happened fast. Long pass up the boards, I think, a quick two-on-one developed. I knew I had to get a shot off once I was past the point of getting a good pass to my teammate Bill Karlsson. I shot it blocker side, found a hole under his arm and the next thing I know we’re celebrating our first short-handed goal of the year, and, it ends up being the game-winner, too. We’re both pumped up and we’re celebrating behind the goal and Karlsson’s hugging and hitting me on the head, fresh stitches and all.
“I only realized just a little while ago that I shot it from almost exactly where I had been hit earlier, I mean, almost right where the ice was just sort of covered in my blood. Karma? I do believe in that. But I’d describe it more as the perfect hockey play. To have that kind of adversity and to come back and persevere and be rewarded. That’s about as perfect a hockey play as you can get.
“I heard coach [John] Tortorella really celebrated on the bench after my goal. I think he knew what it meant, what it meant for our team. I do see a huge connection between stuff like that and the 16-game winning streak we started a little while after. Not just my play, but all the little things teammates do for each other. All those little things add up and that’s how you get to that next level as a team.
“I got home late that night and my son, Kasey, he was 8 or 9 months at the time, he was asleep by the time I got home. He woke up when he heard me come in and I started walking into his room but then I paused. I wondered, for a second, what he would think when he saw me. Dr. [Gregory] Rekos did such a good job. It’s only been a few months and you can barely see the scar. It’s not much more than a little red mark now. He almost did too good of a job. And Courtney, my wife, keeps putting creams and this wand on there for wrinkles and scars. You look at any hockey player’s face and they’ll show you 3-4 of their best scars and they’ll have good stories to tell about each of their badges of honor they collected. But my badge of honor is kind of disappearing.
“Back then, though, I had what looked like the seam of a baseball running across my forehead and the swelling was moving down into my eye and face. It wasn’t pretty. I had no idea what my son would think. So Courtney brought him out of his room and he’s still half-asleep when he sees me and he just laughed and the biggest smile just crossed his face and he was kind of leaning toward me and oohing and ahhing at me, like he was saying, ‘Wow, Dad that’s so cool, look at that big gross ugly scar on your face!’ It was a pretty cool moment, a great end to a special night and a big part of what I’ll always remember about this scar. He’s always falling and bumping into things and getting bumps and bruises, too, so he probably just thought I looked like him. But I was pretty proud of him the way he reacted when he saw his dad’s new scar.
“I guess you can tell even this early, he’s a hockey guy.”
Adam McQuaid, Bruins defenseman
Injury: David Backes‘ skate blade to the neck in a 3-2 win over the Devils, March 4
Damage: 25 stitches
Time missed: None (end of game)
“I REMEMBER EXACTLY the first time I got cut. In juniors, we were playing the Mississauga IceDogs and I poked the puck away, but the guy’s stick rode up my stick and hit me right in the mouth. I was getting stitched up and was kind of thinking, ‘I can’t believe this just happened, I’m going to have this mark on my lip for the rest of my life.’ My coach at the time, Mike Foligno, who played a long time in the NHL, put it in very different terms for me. He said, ‘Well, if you’re lucky enough to keep playing this game, this won’t be the last time you get cut.’
“He was right. Hockey players are synonymous with scars and battle wounds. And if you play long enough you can go through each mark and vividly remember how each one happened. You look in the mirror and you see the scar and it’s a reminder of past experiences, where you’ve been, where you’ve gotten to and how you did it. I mean, just look at this one side of my face. Especially guys who worked their way up through juniors and the minors, every step of the way, each point of your career, leaves its own mark on you. The scars end up being a symbol of the sacrifices and the efforts you made along the way to get where you’re at now.
“I saw the skate come up, I felt the impact of it, but things happen so quickly on the ice, a lot of times it’s a split second one way or the other and you don’t even have time to react to it, not even a sharp skate headed at your neck. Your immediate, human reaction in that situation is to drop your stick and your glove and grab for your neck. That’s what I did. But there wasn’t a lot of pain and I didn’t see a lot of blood so I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’m not even cut, maybe I’m all right here.’
“Then your whole focus in that moment goes back to the task at hand, trying to preserve the win. I knew the refs weren’t going to blow the whistle in that situation and they had pulled their goalie so we were already down a man. If I go right to the bench then we’d be down two guys. We’re all in desperation mode. A lot of guys would do the exact same thing in that situation. I didn’t have a stick or a glove at that point so I just tried to get back in the play and get in the way somehow, and, luckily, we were able to get the puck out pretty quick.
“My teammate Colin Miller helped me off the ice. On the bench, he looked at my neck and said, ‘Oh yeah, no, you’re fine.’ But he got turned around. So I turned to show him the other side of my neck and, he reacted, well, he didn’t gasp or anything, but he did kind of jump and go, ‘Yeah you might want to get that looked at like right now.’
“If there was more blood that would have had me panicked a little more. I think a lot of the blood soaked into my jersey. I don’t know what happened to it. My guess is it probably got washed and put back in my locker for me to wear again. It wasn’t the first NHL jersey to get blood on it, and it won’t be the last.
“We’ve all seen videos of some really scary situations with guys who have been cut in the neck. When I was lying on the table getting ready to get stitched the doc told me how truly lucky I was, how fortunate I was. A few millimeters deeper and we would have had a very, very serious situation. That’s when it kind of hit home for me and I did have a moment where I was just lying there and I took a deep breath and just took a second to think about what could have been. There’s an element of, when you’re lying down like that about to have your neck sewn up, and you come to the realization of just how much is out of your control. So lying there I took a second, I did, to think about what could have been and to thank God for watching over me — but then I moved on pretty quickly from there.”
Casey Cizikas, Islanders center
Injury: Anders Lee‘s skate blade to the wrist in a 4-2 loss to the Capitals, Dec. 13
Damage: 8 stitches
Time missed: Returned in the same period
“MY WRIST LOOKED like a skinned animal. That’s gross, I know, but honestly that’s the only way I know how to describe it. We have two razor-sharp knifes on our feet moving around at top speed on ice, and this is what happens when you get stepped on by one: Basically my wrist looked like when you skin an animal after a hunt and there’s that last little thin layer of fascia still holding everything inside and as soon as you cut that everything spills out.
“I didn’t even feel it, that’s the weirdest part. Didn’t even feel the skate cut me. I got tripped up along the boards and as I’m sliding and guys are coming in on top of me, all I’m thinking about is reaching out and poking the puck and getting it to an open area where one of my guys might be skating and could make a play with it. In the middle of that, all I felt was the pressure and the weight of a skate come down on me. And I knew. It’s a bad feeling. We know how sharp the skates are better than anyone. I looked down and all I saw was red and the blood already running down into my hand.
“The blade sliced through everything like a piece of meat. It went through everything I had on — glove, shirt, wrist guard — like it was nothing. On the bench we pulled everything back to get a better look and as I’m doing this I’m going: ‘Oh, I hope this isn’t bad, I hope this isn’t bad.’ Then we looked at it and I thought, ‘OK, this is really bad.’ Aw, hell, it did not look good. Cal Clutterbuck was right beside me on the bench and he saw what I was looking at and he started slamming his stick against the boards to get the ref’s attention to stop play. Our trainer was screaming, too. He was, like, ‘Let’s go, let’s go, we need to go NOW.’ With all the stories we hear about this particular spot and how dangerous it can be to have a cut there, I didn’t want to think, I might have hit something, I might be dying. I just wanted to get to the doctors as soon as possible.
“These marks we get they all add up like a road map to your career. They show the journey I’ve taken to get to where I am now. That’s the way this sport is. It’s cruel, but we love it and that’s why we play. I got five stitches in my chin as a kid. Four in my upper lip. I got hit from behind in juniors and they glued my forehead shut. Got one inside my bottom lip. I got stepped on in juniors, too, two stitches. More stitches under my eye. Elbow to my jaw a few years ago, broke it in two places. This year alone, I got high-sticked in Dallas, got three on my lip, six inside my mouth. Was warming up early this year and a puck went off the crossbar and hit me in the eye, six stitches. Anders Lee shot it, same guy who stepped on me. He came up to me after the skate thing and was like, ‘Man I’m so so sorry.’ Complete accident, I told him, don’t even worry about it.
“Right where he stepped I have a strap that holds the padding on the outside of my elbow pads and the skate cut through that before it could cut through me. The doc said I was very lucky that strap was there. If it had gone up my wrist instead of across, or if it had gone a little bit higher, where the main arteries are, I would have been in a lot more trouble. But once the doc told me it wasn’t as bad as it looked, I was in a totally new mode: It was, ‘OK, let’s get going, let’s get me back out there.’ Your mindset switches that quick.
“First, though, yeah, the needles. The needles suck so bad. That’s the part we all hate. Not all the damage that’s done to our bodies and faces but that tiny little needle is what all us tough guys hate the most. When you’re in a hurry to get back out there and they need to freeze the entire area as quickly and as best they can, it means sticking that needle right into where you just got cut open — the one place that hurts the most. Makes me cringe just thinking about it right now.
“When I got back on the ice, the refs asked if I was all right, and even guys on the other team asked if I was OK. It was good to hear. It’s an eye-opener for everybody to see what can happen to you out there. I texted everyone in my family: 8 stiches, good to go, def lucky. My mom was shattered until I got in touch with her after the game. My fiancé was like ‘Are you nuts? What are you doing going back in?’ But we’re a family here and if I’m missing games or even just some time, I’m letting my teammates down. We call it ‘going to war’ and we want to battle side-by-side for each other every single night. It runs deep. Especially when it gets down to the nitty-gritty this time of year, you want a room full of guys with that same mentality, guys who will fight together for that playoff spot because, if you get it, that’s the best time of the year, the best part of this sport.
“Years from now when I see this scar, when I rub this scar, I bet the memories won’t be as much about the actual incident of getting cut or the stitches but the guys I came back so quick to play with, and the fun, and all the ups and downs we had this season. Those are the things you remember in 20-30 years. That’s what the scar will remind me of: the bond with my teammates.
“About a month before this all happened I got a sword tattooed on my wrist. It means ‘strength’ and ‘courage’ and the idea was every time I tie my skates up or tape my stick or go into a game it’s the last thing I see and it reminds me to go out there every single night and perform at my best with strength and courage. At first I thought the cut was going to ruin the tattoo, pull it or make it uneven somehow. But it actually made it better.
“The scar means strength and courage to me now just as much as the tattoo.”
Brayden Point, Lightning center
Injury: Cut above the lip by his own visor in a 3-0 victory over the Flyers, Nov. 19
Damage: 30 stitches
Time missed: Returned to the game
“WHEN YOU TALK about hockey scars and what they mean in this sport, the first person that comes to mind is my dad. He’s got a few nicks on his face. He oversees a paving company now, but he played juniors in Calgary and he played in the Heritage League. He’s got all those little scars all around his lips that most older guys have and he got in a fight once and got cut pretty good over his eyebrow. I was too young to remember that and his scars have faded but any hockey guy who has cuts will be able to tell you the stories behind each mark, exactly when and how they happened. It’s part of the game. They’re badges of honor. It’s cool to have these stories and I guess I have mine now. Mine wasn’t glorious, or anything as cool as blocking a shot or getting in a fight, but it is kind of cool that it happened when my dad was with me, on the very first game of our team ‘Fathers Trip’ when all the dads travel with us.
“I’m not sure if this scar makes me feel official because it’s my first in the NHL, but it was definitely the biggest cut I ever had and it taught me pretty quick about the speed of the game in the NHL and the seriousness of the impacts you face on this level. It still makes me think, reminds me of that. It was such a minor kind of play that it happened on, so it’s like, well, don’t forget you’re playing against bigger, stronger guys who are going to hit you a little bit harder.
“I was on the back check against the Flyers and our defenseman, Luke Witkowski, stepped up into the play and most of his force somehow caught me on the top of the helmet. The visors are on screws and my visor just kind of tilted down on to my lip and sliced it. I touched my mouth, I think I spit a bit and I saw blood. I knew I was cut decently bad, but I didn’t think it was anything more than a 3-4 stitches kind of thing. The play was still in our zone so I had to stay on the ice. The puck went to my man, too, so I had to turn around and get in that lane to block his shot. The shot went by me, our goalie was able to glove it and stop play and I got off the ice pretty quick.
“I didn’t really know how bad it was until the doctor wanted to take a picture of it. When the doc wants to take a ‘before’ and ‘after’ pic of your face, you know it’s a pretty good cut. He said it was one of the worst lip cuts he’s ever seen. I got hit in the middle of the second and it took him until almost five minutes left in the third to be done because it sliced so deep. Even though you’re numb you can still feel it, the skin being poked by the needle and then pulled and tied together. It’s not painful, but you feel every stitch.
“When he was done, I went back to the bench. You always want to show the older guys that you’re game and you’re a competitor. It meant a lot that the older guys were saying, ‘Way to come back.’ They didn’t put me back in the game, but I would of played. It can’t change your mindset on the ice. You just can’t think about the bad things that can happen on the ice. You just play and let that all go, and if it ends up happening you just pray that everything goes all right. It’s when you’re thinking and trying to play it safe, that’s when you’re really in danger.
“By the time the game ended, my face looked so gnarly. I had this huge swollen lip and all those stitches. My dad couldn’t believe it when he saw it. He leaned in and was like, ‘Oooh that is a good one.’ Word had already gotten around to my mom and my family that I got cut pretty bad but that I was OK. The first thing my older brother texted was ‘SEND A PICTURE.’
“So as soon we got on the team bus, Dad and I, we sent him a selfie.”
Brady Skjei, Rangers defenseman
Injury: Teammate Kevin Hayes‘ skate blade to the chin in a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks, Dec. 13
Damage: 24 stitches
Time missed: Returned to the game
“THIS WAS MY first major cut. It came during a whirlwind-type week for me, a big welcome-to-the-NHL type week. I had just gotten my first NHL goal, something I had dreamed of my whole life and then the very next game I take a skate to the face and I guess that’s what really officially welcomes you to the league, getting a scar like this. When it happens to you for the first time, it’s crazy and it’s gory, but I’m not going to lie, getting kicked in the face by a skate is a little bit frightening, too.
“Kevin Hayes was on the Blackhawks’ Marian Hossa really tight and when Hossa made a cutback his butt kicked Kevin’s leg back. The whole thing was a fluky situation. Nothing has ever happened like that to me in my entire hockey career, with a skate coming up that high. It felt like a punch to the chin, hit me so hard my mouthpiece popped out. I skated off trying to hold my chin together and keep the blood from going everywhere. It looked like the skate had gone all the way through, like someone had cut a second pair of lips into the side of my face. It was nasty. It looked insane. It sets you back a little bit. When I sent my mom pictures of the cut, I definitely made sure to send her the ‘after’ picture, with my face all stitched up, first.
“I actually feel pretty lucky, though, an inch lower and that’s my neck opened up like that. The biggest issue was that the power of the kick chopped two of my teeth right in half and they didn’t want me to get hit again and swallow my teeth, that could be really bad. I thought I might be able to keep my teeth. But the next morning when I bit down I could feel them moving around, totally loose, and I could tell they were only holding on by the gums. Later, they pulled them, and pulled the nerves out too, and told me to get them replaced — but not until after the season. After the X-rays and the stitches I walked from the training room to the locker room and put my helmet back on and I looked down and saw there was blood on my jersey, more blood, I guess the cut was still dripping. So, it’s kind of funny, I just walked back to the training room and they threw in a few more extra stitches at the end to tighten it all up and then I went back out to play.
“Hockey players take so much pride in this part of the game that it’s more rare that a guy wouldn’t return after getting stitches. I see our assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom every day in practice and he’s got some battle wounds and they’re proof of the kind of player he was, the work ethic and the pride he took in being a physical defenseman. If the way you play the game results in a scar or two, that’s something you take pride in. I’m usually the baby-faced kid out there anyway, now I look a little tougher at least. I’m already used to seeing it in the mirror so it’s no big deal. It’s a reminder of that week, of my initiation into the NHL. So I’m honestly kind of happy to have it the rest of my life.
“I’ll definitely show my grandkids someday, they’ll respect that.”