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'A MATTER OF INCHES'

by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres

Although Clint Malarchuk played 11 seasons in the NHL, including the final four of his career with the Buffalo Sabres, he's probably best remembered for a single play. On a night at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium in 1989, the goaltender nearly died when his throat was slashed by a skate blade.

He's written a new memoir about his life and struggles both on and off the ice.

The following excerpt from A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond by Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/ClintMalarchuk.


The first time I should have died was a Wednesday. March 22, 1989.

As I prepared for our game against the St. Louis Blues that night, I sat by myself in the locker room at the Memorial Auditorium, staring down at the floor, visualizing myself in net. It was a routine I did before every game.

The meditation forced me to focus on one thing: the puck. It quelled the chaos and turned it into a positive obsession. I’d run through stop after stop in my mind—a pad save, a glove save, a breakaway.

After being lost in an imaginary future, I got off the bench and went out into the hallway, beneath the seats slowly filling with fans. I turned to face a cement-block wall a few feet away, squared my shoulders and crouched.

Thud.

I threw a rubber ball against the wall with my right hand and caught it with my left.

Thud . . . thud. Then I threw it with my left and caught it with my right. Thud . . . thud . . . thud. Each time, the ball bounced off the wall faster than it originally hit it.

I threw the ball harder and harder against the wall—catch and throw, catch and throw.

It was a routine I had picked up from Vladislav Tretiak when I went to his camp in Montreal. It was essential to getting into the right frame of mind to play. Sometimes, I would throw two balls against the wall, tossing one and catching the other at the same time.

I forced myself to learn how to do that. On off-days, I’d pick a number and I wouldn’t stop the drill until I hit that number without dropping a ball.

Whenever I did these pre-game drills, people would stop to watch me, but I blocked them out of my head. I’m sure the speed was remarkable to them.

But in my mind, it was just one fluid blur. Thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . The anxiety became manageable. The repetition slowed everything down and let me focus on one simple thing.

After the drill, I was still tense, but it wasn’t debilitating. I finished getting dressed with the team and went out for warmups under the lights of the Aud. The tension stayed with me through the shooting drills, but it was all directed towards the game now.

Each shot was part of a countdown. My heart pounded throughout the national anthem. My mind and body were consumed by the beat.

Thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . thud . . . And then the players lined up, the puck was dropped, and it all came to a crescendo.

Then silence: 20:00 . . . 19:59 . . . 19:58 . . .

The clock crept past the five-minute mark. It was still the first period and I hadn’t faced many shots yet.

We were up 1–0. The puck was on the boards in the corner and I was on my post. The Blues’ Steve Tuttle, a twenty-three-year-old rookie, charged to the net, looking for a pass. One of our defensemen, Uwe Krupp, was right behind him.

4:45 . . . The pass came just above the crease—a backdoor play. I slid across the net. 4:44 . . . Krupp pulled Tuttle down from behind and slid into me, skates first. 4:43.

It felt like a kick to the mask. There was no pain, but I pulled my helmet off. And then I saw the blood. It spattered red in the faceoff circle.

A stream gushed out with every beat of my heart. It’s an artery. I grabbed my neck, trying to keep the blood in, but it rushed between my fingers. It just kept coming. I slumped forward and it glugged out like a water fountain.

Everything was a blur. I didn’t see the white faces in the crowd. I didn’t see fans pass out or any of the players vomiting on the ice. I didn’t hear Blues forward Rick Meagher turn to the benches and scream for help.

All I saw was the blood rushing into a red sea around me. I’m going to die.

Terry Gregson, the referee, looked down at me. His eyes were huge. “Get a stretcher—he’s bleeding to death!”

Our trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, got to me first. He had gauze from the medical kit. He pushed it against my throat, holding me so tight I could barely breathe. The crease was covered in blood.

I coughed out, “Jim, it’s my jugular.”

He was so calm. “Just do what I say.”

Years earlier, Jim had been a combat engineer in the Vietnam War. His second week in, he was walking through a village when a truck collided with him and four other soldiers. The impact broke his ribs. It tossed another soldier into a gully, where he was decapitated by a sheet-metal hut.

Jim was medevacked out, with the young man’s body and head beside him. He studied sports medicine after the war. Now here he was, squeezing his arm around my neck.

“We’re going to save you.”

“Jim, I can’t breathe.”

He flexed his grip. “You’re not going to breathe until we get you to a doctor.”

He helped me to my skates and we made it through the doors behind my net. I was scared as hell. I had no idea how much blood I had already lost. I had seen a television show that said a severed jugular would bleed out in minutes. I’m going to die.

My mother was at home in Calgary, watching the game on satellite. I couldn’t let her see this happen—not on the ice, not on TV, not like this. They put me on a table in the trainer’s room. Rip Simonick, our equipment manager, stood over me and held my hand. I asked him to call my mom.

When I first started playing for the Sabres, I saw a chaplain hanging around the arena. I asked Rip to call for him, figuring God might be my only hope to live. But at the one game I really needed him, the chaplain wasn’t there.

One of the team’s doctors took a towel and pressed it down on my throat with all his weight. He’d let up so I could breathe, and the blood would spout out and he’d press back down.

I still didn’t have a sense of time. There was mass confusion. Lots of nurses and doctors came down from the stands, wanting to help.

Security had to clear everyone out. Jim started cutting off my pads and chest protector. Rip was still holding my hand as he dialed my mother’s number. I didn’t want to pass out. If I close my eyes, I won’t wake up.

The ambulance seemed to take forever, but it was probably only ten minutes. When it finally arrived, they got me on a stretcher and put an IV in my arm.

I tried to make a joke: “Put in a couple stitches and let me get back out there.” Blood gurgled out as I said it. No one laughed. They were white as ghosts, and I figured it was the end.

Rip said, “I talked to your mom. She says she loves you.”

Our team doctor climbed into the ambulance with the paramedics and pushed down on my neck the whole ride to Buffalo General. They wheeled me through the emergency room doors. I was still wearing my hockey pants and long johns—they cut the gear off me.

They told me I was going to be okay, and I wanted to believe them. I tried to. They put a needle in my arm and I watched their frantic faces drift away.


A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond by Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson is available for purchase at www.triumphbooks.com/ClintMalarchuk.

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