NORFOLK - The Norfolk Admirals lost a lead and then the game Friday against the Grand Rapids Griffins, but that wasn't foremost on the minds of many in an announced Scope crowd of 5,337 who saw the 2-1 setback. The more dramatic happenings unfortunately involved serious injuries, one to referee Chris Cozzan's neck and the other to Grand Rapids wing Ryan Oulahen's left leg.
Cozzan dropped in a corner of the rink with 5:34 remaining in the first period when the side of his neck was sliced by the raised skate of Norfolk's Radek Smolenak, who was falling forward and off-balance after absorbing a body check from Brett Peterson. The referee landed face down and immediately rolled on his back, legs kicking desperately, one hand to his neck and the other beckoning for help.
Smolenak, who didn't know until after the game that his skate had done the damage, dropped his stick and gloves and knelt at Cozzan's side, trying to aid the official until both teams' trainers could sprint and slide from the benches on the opposite side of the ice. Other players banged sticks and gloved fists urgently on the doors to the Zamboni ramp, urging attendants to open the exit while a stretcher was rolled onto the other end of the rink by running emergency medical technicians.
“I thought he fell down and someone stepped on him,” Smolenak said. “I heard him screaming and saw blood and I started freaking out. I just tried to put pressure on him to stop the bleeding until [help] got there.”
The Admirals' team physicians also responded and Cozzan was stabilized and wheeled off the ice within 10 minutes. An update from the Admirals said he was alert and responsive and had been taken to Norfolk General Hospital. A second announcement said any further updates on Cozzan's condition would be posted on www.theahl.com, but league administrator Jason Chaimovitch said at 10:50 p.m. that Cozzan was in surgery and is “expected to be fine”.
Bob Kaser, a Griffins' vice president and the team's radio broadcaster, said he was told by Grand Rapids trainer Rob Snitzer that the cut suffered by Cozzan came within an inch of the referee's jugular vein.
With blood visible on the ice, an announcement was made that the first intermission would be taken and the first period's remaining time would be added to the start of the second stanza. Linesmen Mark Hamlett and Paul Reid continued with Hamlett serving as referee and a local fill-in, Gary Williford, Jr., came on to round out the crew for the third period.
Oulahen's injury came six minutes into the second period when he landed awkwardly along the boards in the same corner and almost exactly the same spot where Cozzan had been hurt. Norfolk defenseman Brent Henley, listed at 6 feet 6 and 260 pounds, collided with the 6-1, 195-pound Oulahen a moment before the Griffin fell backwards. Henley said Oulahen caught the heel of his left skate in the ice as his body twisted back and sideways.
“When he went down, I heard a loud pop and he shouted and I knew right away he was really hurt,” said Henley, who began yelling for Hamlett to stop play and for medical personnel to again take the ice. “It made me nauseous, because you never want to hurt anyone, let alone see them taken off on a stretcher.”
Norfolk coach Darren Rumble said he received a report that Oulahen's left femur snapped and a portion of the broken bone came through the skin of his thigh inside his hockey shorts.
The injuries and their near-identical locations spawned some grim humor as players tried to shake off the somber mood and return to action. Smolenak, whose left wing position had him repeatedly skating into the “cursed” corner during the second period, asked linemate Brandon Segal if he wanted to switch sides. Henley said he lined up for a faceoff alongside Griffin Darren McCarty after Oulahen's injury and the longtime NHL veteran told him he didn't want to go into that particular corner any more.
“I said me neither and we were only half joking,” Henley said. “I've never seen anything like that in my eight years pro.”
The Admirals (29-36-3-5) haven't faced many goaltenders as hot as Grand Rapids' Jimmy Howard (20-14-4) this season. The former University of Maine star made 47 saves, including several snares with his glove that had the Admirals shaking their heads and the home fans moaning in disbelief.
“Their goalie was terrific and on any other night, we would have scored four or five goals,” Henley said. “We had momentum when both those injuries happened and when you're rolling, the last thing you want is a long stoppage. It happened twice but we stayed on them.”