Trent McCleary: The shot that almost killed me

Trent McCleary: The shot that almost killed me


'The seconds were ticking and death was already breathing down my neck,' says former Montreal Canadiens forward

By Trent McCleary for CBC Sports
October 11, 2017
 

If you could turn back time, would you?

Yes, I would throw myself again in front of that shot. Without any hesitation —100 per cent. Even knowing what would happen. Even knowing that the puck would destroy my larynx and would prevent oxygen from reaching my lungs just seconds later. That I would be spitting out blood profusely. That I would come just a hair from dying on the ice the afternoon of Jan. 29, 2000 in front of 20,000 people and hundreds of thousands of television viewers at what was formerly known as the Molson Centre. I'd do it again. But let's just say that I would try to synchronize myself a little better.

Trent McCleary was moments from death after taking a puck to the throat. (Reuters) Trent McCleary was moments from death after taking a puck to the throat. (Reuters)

I'd do it again simply because for me, Trent McCleary — who no one predicted  would have a future in the National Hockey League — there was no other way to play.

Because if I wasn't the type of player that would regularly throw myself in front of a blast from Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Chris Therrien, I would have never been in the lineup that day. I would never have played a single game in the best hockey league in the world.

Seeing the puck ricochet off the boards and head towards Therrien — who was winding up — I instinctively did what I was paid to do, what I had always done. It was my style of play and my role as a bottom-six forward on the Canadiens. I threw myself in the line of fire between Therrien and our goaltender, Jeff Hackett.

 

In my head, it happened in slow motion as I was sliding. As the puck took a bit more time to reach the Flyers’ defenceman, I told myself at first that rather than my shin guards, the puck would hit my hockey pants.

Then, I thought it would hit my abdomen. Then, my chest.

But a fraction of a second later, I took it right in the throat.

 

'Impact that defined my life'

It was 17 years ago. I was a young 27-year-old guy playing on a prestigious team. I had a fiancée, Tammy, who was in the stands that day. In short, everything was going wonderfully.

 

Then, in one second, the impact that defined my life happened. The impact that brought an end to my playing career in the sport which I'm still so passionate about to this day. The same passion that drives me to close my office door after work and quickly head towards the Swift Current arena to coach my bantam team’s practice in this small Saskatchewan town that I call home.

Even today, I'm still asked about the incident. My friend Clint Malarchuk, a goaltender who had his throat cut by a skate blade in the middle of a game, is known as the "the cut."

That incident defines him and will define him for the rest of his life in the eyes of fans. Since that Saturday afternoon in January 2000, I am "the shot." I'm the one who almost died in the middle of a game on national TV on the ice of the Montreal Canadiens.

And that doesn't bother me at all.

 

For a stunned crowd asking me what happened, there is just one question ringing in my head: Why the hell can't I breathe?

What do I take away from it? A sometimes-gravelly voice and a short memory of what happened immediately after the impact on the ice.

First of all, it is the instantaneous and intense pain. Then, the sudden feeling of my breathing becoming more and more difficult, like through a straw, of which the diametre was quickly diminishing as the seconds passed.

 

And during that moment, both short and never-ending, for a stunned crowd asking me what happened, there is just one question ringing in my head: Why the hell can't I breathe?

 

 
 

Surrounded by several teammates who were bent over me, I stand up, take off my helmet and skate, confused, towards my team's bench.

I can't breathe.

What’s going on?

Helped by his teammates, McCleary headed to the dressing room but collapsed shortly after leaving the ice. (Reuters) Helped by his teammates, McCleary headed to the dressing room but collapsed shortly after leaving the ice. (Reuters)

All this time, the problem is not that oxygen wasn't coming in, it's more the carbon dioxide not coming out. Poison is accumulating in my body and I can't get it out.

From  the bench, I take my first step off the ice. Hardly in the tunnel towards the dressing room I feel my knees bend to the point that two teammates have to hold me so I don't collapse.

Curiously, up until that moment, despite all this panic, I told myself that I would at most miss the rest of the period. Not the rest of my career.

Just before that moment, I had no idea how much the puck devastated the bones in my larynx. The seconds were ticking and death was already breathing down my neck.

Then, I lost consciousness in the arms of my teammates.

After that, nothing.

No memory of the doctors laying me down on the therapist's table or in uncontrollable panic, grabbing one of them and throwing him over the table. No memory of all the chaos, of my uncontrolled agitation, of the panic in that small room under the stands, of  the blood coming out of my mouth, all over the table, on the ground, on my sweater, on the hands of the doctors who were trying to somehow contain the small but fiery athlete that I am. At the time, I was unconscious and in full distress.

No memory of Dr. Fleiszer thrusting a needle in my throat to give me as much oxygen as possible after urgently coming down from the stands. No memory either of being transported by an ambulance to the Montreal General Hospital, taking Rue de la Montagne. During the trip, doctors were asking themselves, despite all their effort, if I would live through this nightmare.

 

I didn't see how lucky I was on the way to the hospital, or the results of the alert that the Canadiens sent to hospital personnel, all the synchronized green lights, the elevator waiting upon my arrival or the presence of the chief anesthetist that afternoon.

No memory either of the emergency tracheotomy performed while I was still wearing the majority of my equipment — including my skates — on the operating table. Everything was perfect.

And it's the only reason that I'm still here to talk about it.

 
 

‘Unbearable helplessness’

My first memories take me back to the days that followed — especially the unbearable feeling of helplessness.

When you wake up from such an incident, you are in exactly the same mental state you were in  when you lost consciousness. In my case, it was panic. To counter this, the doctors administered a paralyzing substance.

McCleary's future wife Tammy, right, was with him every step of the way during his ordeal. (Reuters) McCleary's future wife Tammy, right, was with him every step of the way during his ordeal. (Reuters)

So here I am lying in my hospital bed, awake, but unable to move anything, and not knowing why. I can’t move a finger or open my eyes. But I can hear the doctors speaking perfectly.

Suddenly, my eyelids are opened and my pupils are checked ensuring they are equally dilated. As we know, pupils dilated to different sizes often indicates brain damage. While playing junior exactly five years earlier, Jan. 29, 1995, I suffered an eye injury which, on top of almost ending my career, permanently damaged the dilation of one of my pupils, unable to move next to doctors who think I'm brain dead. It's torture. I can’t talk or express myself in any way. So, I start to sweat, which maintains the doctors' fears that I'm suffering from an infection.

Finally, they try to communicate with me. I can move a little bit, then more and more, then I more or less attempt to write. What happened? I was playing hockey...but where am I?

 

A guy almost died on an ice rink in Canada, on television.

It's incredible to see how quickly your body can weaken. I was one of the fittest professional athletes. Two days later, I could barely walk to the end of the hallway.

I leave my room a few days later to go to the press conference room at the Bell Centre. I'm blown away at what I'm seeing. The room is full of journalists and cameras. Flashes are exploding everywhere...for me! Really? You don't have anything else to cover today? That's crazy. I'm doing well. Have a look.

Even today, I can't get over how big the incident got. I even had some friends in Mexico at that time, who told me that my story had been broadcast all over TV stations there: A guy almost died on an ice rink in Canada, on television.

That's when I realized that very few players had lost their life during a game. I realize now why my story became so big. But at that moment of my life, I don’t understand it. And I especially don’t want it. I'm only 27 years old. All I want is to be able to play again. I don't want media attention. I want to score goals.

From left to right, teammates Saku Koivu, Craig Rivet, Martin Rucinsky and Brian Savage, attended McCleary’s official retirement announcement eight months after his horrific injury. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press) From left to right, teammates Saku Koivu, Craig Rivet, Martin Rucinsky and Brian Savage, attended McCleary’s official retirement announcement eight months after his horrific injury. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

I want to play hockey, ladies and gentlemen. Don't make too big of a story of what I lived through because you will see me again soon on the ice, without a doubt.

My first memories take me back to the first days and first weeks where I could hardly express myself. I couldn't write as quickly as my thoughts would allow me. In those moments where I was still unable to talk, I would occasionaly go to the stores near my downtown condo. Seeing a guy come in, who could not speak, holding a clipboard and a pencil, customers would — after a moment of doubt — loudly express what they just realized: “Hey, that's the guy. It's Trent.”

By the way, I always found this situation odd. For some unknown reason, people would speak loudly to me. Everywhere! Almost yelling. I wasn't deaf. I just wasn't able to talk. But that's just how it was. I could be sitting in a restaurant with my wife (who was eating a normal meal while I was drinking a milkshake because of my demolished throat), customers around would yell while talking to me. But it was done in a nice way. It was just odd.

 

Speaking of milkshakes, I have a lifelong memory of the liquid food supplement Boost. It was impossible to eat at the start so doctors refused to let me leave the hospital before I was able to drink. I lived on Boost drinks for six weeks. I tried all the flavours.

I haven't swallowed a single one since. Believe me.

 
 

‘So natural for me'

If throwing myself in front of a shot from a big NHL defenceman was so natural for me, it’s because I always had to slave away to reach my goal — a goal that not many people around me believed I would reach. Take my presence in the Canadiens' lineup that season.

McCleary was miserable in Boston and was granted his release.
 (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images) McCleary was miserable in Boston and was granted his release. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

It was the end of the summer of 1998: I had briefly played for the Boston Bruins two years earlier. They still had my rights but I wasn't in their plans. They offered me a two-way contract. I refused and left to play in Las Vegas. In short, I wasn't allowed to play anywhere in the NHL.

I was sitting at home, here in Swift Current, when NHL training camps opened. One of my longtime friends, Mark Habscheid, asked me this simple question: Why don't you go ask Harry Sinden, the Bruins' legendary general manager, for your release in person and not over the phone? Face-to-face. Man-to-man.

So, I got in my car in Saskatchewan and  drove nonstop to Boston. The next morning, I got to the Bruins’ practice facility. Sinden was there with his close friends and some journalists. I asked him to release me directly. Grumbling, he agreed.

Just as quickly, I got back in my car and drove to Ottawa, where my agent was. He placed a few calls around the NHL, including to Montreal Canadiens coach Alain Vigneault, who I knew from his years as an assistant with the Senators. Alain wasn't sure. Camp had already started. He had already cut some players, but he finally agreed to bring me in.

 

I showed up a mess at camp in Mont-Tremblant, Que. I gave everything I had. I had missed the start of camp so I was behind the others. I didn’t have a choice. I had to get noticed. I was like a Tasmanian devil on the ice. I had a bone to pick with Dave Manson. I fought Igor Ulanov. I carved out a spot on the team.

When I showed up at camp, everyone was asking themselves, who is this guy? But I did what I had to do to get the job. That's what my career was. I would do whatever I had to for my team.

 
 

One regret

I have only one regret: Never being able to throw myself in front of another shot before saying farewell to my playing career. Next season, I tried to come back. I trained like I never had during the summer. I believed.

It was Canadiens team doctor David Mulder who informed McCleary that his hockey career was over. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press) It was Canadiens team doctor David Mulder who informed McCleary that his hockey career was over. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

I worked as hard as ever — as hard as I should have because I always took a lot of pride at being among the fittest guys on the team. I went through the same training as each of my past summers, but even harder.

My training partner knew perfectly well that I couldn't do it. But he never said anything. He must have been afraid that I would hit him. I was in full denial. If someone could recover from such an injury, why couldn't I? After all, I had already beat the odds to make the NHL. No one thought I would get as far as I did.

Everyone saw it. It was blindingly obvious. But during training camp, I couldn't recover as quickly. Each shift was shorter. After the accident, my weight dropped to 64 kilograms (140 pounds). I  had a hard time gaining weight before the puck hit my larynx.

Throughout training camp, the Canadiens doctor, Dr. David Mulder, monitored me closely. “Play an exhibition game, Trent,” he told me. “Then we'll talk about it.” I finally played a game, against the Boston Bruins.

Then we talked about it, Dr. Mulder and I. He simply told me what I knew already: "Without sufficient oxygen supply, your body can't adequately recover. If you can't recover, you can't make any headway. If you can't make headway, you could hurt yourself.”

He then announced that he was going to withdraw my medical clearance to play. Dr. Mulder was perfect. He told me, "Trent, I know. don't worry. You are not giving up. I'm taking away your clearance. It's me, not you."

 

Deep down, I probably suffered the best career-ending injury that exists. Look at Marc Savard — victim of several concussions and still suffering today. Years later, he still has recurring headaches and is sensitive to light.

Me? My only aftereffect is that I can't play hockey because I lack the same oxygen supply that the top 0.5 per cent of the world's population enjoys. That's all.

Honestly, it gives me a perfect excuse in certain situations. Do you really think that I have defensive lapses when I play hockey in my pickup league? "What? Backchecking? Me? Impossible, I don't have enough oxygen."

 
 

'I wasn’t afraid'

I wanted to block a last shot so badly; to convince those who were wondering if I was afraid to do it again. The answer is crystal clear in my head: No, I wasn't afraid. I would have done it again without even thinking.

I did it hundreds of times — deadly shots, shots from big defenders like Dmitri Filiminov. Remember him? Russians built like tanks. Guys who put all their weight behind a shot. Shots that hurt.

McCleary spends his time in Swift Current, Sask., as a financial advisor and minor-league hockey coach. (Corla Rokochy) McCleary spends his time in Swift Current, Sask., as a financial advisor and minor-league hockey coach. (Corla Rokochy)

But in that exhibition game against the Bruins, I never had the chance. In hindsight, Dr. Mulder made the smart choice that had to be made. It was over for me.

Today, I'm a financial advisor in Swift Current. Evenings and weekends, I coach a bantam hockey team. And yes, I show my players how to block shots. Without any fear.

After all, a puck is round and a larynx is curved. It takes horrible luck for a puck to do the damage that it did to me. In practically all cases, the puck would deflect one way or another. But if you look at my injury, you'll see that the puck hit my neck, then fell in front of me — motionless. It hit me in the worst possible place — where it could cause the most damage.

What are the chances that this type of misfortune could occur again, like on that day at the Molson Centre in January 2000? Minuscule.

 

I'm happy that my career came to an end playing the game that defined me. The game that made my reputation. The game that illustrated  how  I would  do anything to help my team.

Over the years, I did a lot of stuff on the ice. I  fought Eric Lindros. Why did I think about doing that? I must have consistently needed to find a way to get noticed.

I fought against some of the most intimidating guys. I always wanted to inspire my team. That's how I played. I don't know why I had that in me. And I had fun.

Some guys become aggressive. Not me. What happened on the ice never made me angry. Never made me bad-tempered. I loved my job.

I was a hockey player. And I will always be one.

(Large photos by Corla Rokochy, Reuters and The Canadian Press)

(Editor's note: This POV was originally written for Radio-Canada and has been translated to English.)

 

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