My first thought was that my team really needed to get the puck out of the zone. My second thought was that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand up again.
It was a beer-league hockey game in December 2014 at the Ice Ranch in Littleton, Colorado. Only a few minutes had gone by in the game and my team was ahead by five goals. I was in net pitching a shutout. We weren’t usually that good — the season was actually going quite poorly — but we were helped by the fact that our opponents were playing with no goalie at all. Something about a mix-up getting a backup tendy.
Since they were skating six men, they managed to break it out of their zone. Their center carried the puck to near the faceoff circle to my right, so I followed him over in my stance. Suddenly, one of my defensemen collided with me from my left — behind the play. I went to the ice on my back, and he fell on top of me. Since I had been in my stance, my knee was bent when he hit me, and when we went down, he pinned my lower left leg back and to the side of my upper left leg, bent and slightly rotated. A body isn’t supposed to twist like that.
I felt a pop and then sharp pain in my left knee. I screamed.
My team’s failure to clear the puck out of our zone ended up irrelevant since the ref blew his whistle within a few seconds of the collision. After my d-man got off of me, I rolled over and tried to move my leg. It responded, but something was definitely loose. The sharp pain had been replaced by a dull numbness, the sort that heralds an injury that will be terrible once the swelling starts and the adrenaline wears off.
Somehow, I stood up and limped to the bench. I had a vague notion that I might be able to work it out or stretch it out or will it out… or something. In hindsight, my mental state was a bigger liability than my leg. I was terrified that I might have had a severe knee injury, unsure of what to do, and even less sure about the conflicting instructions being tossed my way by well-meaning teammates on the bench.
With the other team’s goalie still absent, and me on the bench with a loose knee and sheer terror in my mind, an extremely rare event occurred in the game: both nets were empty. It was something I’d never seen before in any organized game at any level of hockey.
Unfortunately, my team was less deft at running up the score with both nets empty than with only our opponent’s goal unmanned. Our opponents were more skilled; the tally moved closer to parity with every ticking minute. Then, worse news for us: a guy who looked high school age with goalie sticks in one hand and a goalie equipment bag in the other was rushing towards the changing room.
My team begged me to go back on the ice. I wanted nothing more than to rejoin them in battle, but my left knee protested. It felt as though any stress would cause whatever shreds of tissue were holding it together to give way entirely. Perhaps I could go back to the net and just stand there, one teammate asked? I hesitated for a moment, watched yet another puck go in our still-empty net, and decided to give it a try.
I normally played goalie in the butterfly style, which takes away most of the lower part of the net but places high levels of stress on the knees. With my left knee no longer able to tolerate that abuse, I was forced to play more of a standup style. It was a return to an earlier time, something seldom seen since the early 1990s.
Although my legs were fixed upright, my hands were still free to move, and I began turning away shots with my stick, glove, and blocker. About five minutes after my return, the other team finally got a goalie in their net, too, and the game began in earnest.
I wish I could say that my personal shutout continued, but it was not to be. A lack of mobility was too much to overcome, and I let in another goal or two after my return. Fortunately, my team had managed to find the back of the net enough times in the early minutes of the game that we still pulled out the win overall.
My job completed, I limp-skated off the ice and into the dressing room. My knee had already begun to swell.
By the next morning, I was in tremendous pain, my knee was swollen so much that it barely bent at all, and it was all I could do to let Sophie outside into my fenced yard. Our usual morning and afternoon walks were out of the question.
There was but one question on my mind: had I skated my last game of hockey?