For Nathan Gerbe, it all happened in a flash.
The puck was dropped for a faceoff. A player was knocked down, his leg flying up and suddenly Gerbe’s face was flush with blood.
Gerbe had been cut by a skate blade. It’s an occupational hazard in hockey, an ever present danger that the players try to more or less ignore while fully understanding the potential risks in a sport based on speed and quick movements.
What other sport is played with a deadly weapon attached to their equipment? Skate blades may not have the fine edge of a chef’s knife but are sharp enough to easily cut through muscles and tendons, or slice through arteries.
Gerbe, a Carolina Hurricanes winger, was playing for the Buffalo Sabres when cut by the skate of teammate Paul Gaustad.
“I split my lip and my nose open,” Gerbe said. “It’s scary. You’re not prepared for it, obviously. Luckily it wasn’t much worse. There have been guys who had it more severe than me.”
Forward Drew Miller of the Detroit Red Wings recently was slashed when he was caught in the face by the skate of Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators. Cut on both sides of his right eye, Miller needed almost 60 stitches.
“Something like that can happen and you can lose an eye, lose a finger,” said Columbus forward Cam Atkinson, another who took a skate to the face this season. “People don’t realize how you’re skating on a very sharp blade. It can cut right through your equipment. It can leave a pretty big gash.”
Earlier this season defenseman Michael Del Zotto of the Philadelphia Flyers was playing the puck in a corner, fell and was clipped in the neck by the skate of Colorado Avalanche forward Daniel Briere.
Del Zotto was lucky. He was quickly stitched up and returned to the game, but some gruesome photos of his neck and the cut – close to the carotid artery – quickly went viral on social media.
“I kind of felt for blood and there wasn’t too much, so I wasn’t that scared at the time,” Del Zotto said. “But when it’s that close to a major artery in the neck it’s a scary situation.
“I’m pretty fortunate. I took one on the side of my face before, had 50 stitches. It’s nothing new for me.”
Defenseman Zach Redmond of the Avalanche wasn’t so fortunate. His cut was almost fatal, with only the quick reactions of teammates, trainers, then the medical staff at Raleigh’s Rex Hospital perhaps saving his life.
Redmond was playing for the Winnipeg Jets in February 2013 and at PNC Arena for the Jets’ morning skate. He was getting in extra work after the skate when teammate Antti Miettinen fell off-balance and cut Redmond on the inside of his right leg at mid-thigh, severing the femoral artery and vein.
The Jets’ trainers soon rushed onto the ice. So did Pete Friesen, the Canes head trainer.
“I don’t think it gets more serious than that,” Friesen said. “It was the worst bleed I’ve ever seen. A man was about to lose his life.”
Another teammate, Anthony Peluso, and assistant coach Perry Pearn quickly jumped in. Peluso used a towel to try and close the gash while Pearn tied his jacket around Redmond’s leg as tourniquet.
Redmond was taken to the hospital for three hours of emergency surgery to reattach the artery, was hospitalized for a week and needed six weeks of recovery time.
Another close call was the horrendous injury suffered by forward Richard Zednik in February 2008. Then with the Florida Panthers, he was sliced on the neck by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen during a game in Buffalo, hitting the external carotid artery.
Zednik lost five units of blood. While the surgery was successful, he missed the rest of the season.
The Hurricanes have had their share of skate scares.
Playing against the Columbus Blue Jackets in November 2009, goalie Cam Ward was cut just above the left knee by the skate of forward Rick Nash, then with the Blue Jackets, when Nash was upended in front of the crease.
“He cut the quadriceps tendon,” Friesen said of Ward. “It didn’t lacerate the tendon. If it did it would have been very detrimental to his career.”
Ward missed 29 games but did return that season.
The Achilles tendon is particularly vulnerable in a sport where skates come in close contact along the walls, in the corners. Former Canes defenseman Joe Corvo cut his Achilles tendon just a few weeks after Ward’s injury in 2009.
Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner cut through two pairs of Corvo’s socks, into the calf, hitting a nerve and then the Achilles tendon. Corvo needed more than 100 stitches.
Many players now wear Kevlar cut-resistant socks, which protect the calf and Achilles tendon. Some players don’t like them, saying the socks create more body heat inside the skates. Others are believers.
Forward Devante Smith-Pelly of the Montreal Canadiens said he escaped a serious injury this season when he caught a blade to back of his calf and foot.
“I panicked for a second,” he said. “But there was no cut. I was wearing the skate-resistant socks and they definitely saved me. It saved my season.”
Players wear protective shields on their helmets. But as Gerbe, Miller and others can attest, it’s not fully protective.
“With skates and sticks flying around, it can be pretty dangerous,” Smith-Pelly said.