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Out of the woods

McCleary better, but career in doubt after injury

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Posted: Monday January 31, 2000 02:34 PM

  Trent McCleary lies on the ice after being struck by a slap shot that caused him to have emergency surgery. AP

MONTREAL (AP) - Trent McCleary, who came within minutes of dying after being hit in the throat by a slap shot, felt well enough Sunday to write a note to his Montreal Canadiens teammates.

"Doing great, everybody," said the handwritten message delivered by team doctor David Mulder.

He said he would be listening to Sunday's game, in which Montreal beat Carolina 3-0.

"Battle hard," the note said. "Go Habs." It was signed, "Trent No. 6."

McCleary is unable to speak but he is no longer in danger of dying, Mulder said Sunday. He is recovering from a fractured larynx and collapsed lung.

Doctors expect him to spend at least a week in hospital, but it is not clear if he will be able to play again.

The 27-year-old player, his skates still on, underwent an emergency tracheotomy Saturday night after being hit flush on the throat on a shot from Philadelphia's Chris Therien during a 2-2 tie.

"He's much better now," said Mulder, who treated the popular fourth-line winger from the time he was helped, limp and gasping for air, from the Molson Centre to Montreal General Hospital.

"Anyone on a respirator is considered in critical condition, but in terms of danger to his life, he went through that (Saturday) night," Mulder added. "Certainly, his life is not in danger now."

Ear, nose and throat specialists will decide Monday whether they should operate immediately on his larynx or wait several days for the swelling to subside. McCleary might be left with a raspy voice.

The only NHL player to die from an injury in a game was Bill Masterton, whose head struck the ice in 1968. Mulder said McCleary came close to dying.

"It was as close as I think you could come," Mulder said. "It was a matter of seconds. If we had been held up along the way ..."

McCleary helped himself by skating to the bench. He gestured to his throat that he couldn't breathe before he collapsed and went unconscious.

Mulder was at the boards, and associate Dr. David Fleiszer, a spectator, rushed to help.

When they couldn't get a breathing tube down the player's throat, McCleary was placed in an ambulance. There was little traffic for the five-minute ride.

Mulder and Fleiszer gave him an oxygen mask and tilted McCleary's head during the trip to let air into his body.

Dr. Vincent Lacroix had called ahead, so hospital staff had an elevator waiting and an operating room ready. A senior anesthesiologist, Dr. Michel Germain, was on duty.

There was no time to remove equipment, so they cut away the front of his jersey and operated.

Mulder performed the tracheotomy -- a hole cut into the base of the throat that opens an air passage -- and ran a tube to reinflate the right lung. With his oxygen source restored, the worst danger was over. It all took less than 45 minutes.

"It's the first operation I've done where I looked down afterwards and the patient still had skates on," Mulder said.

When Mulder returned a few hours later, McCleary's vital signs were normal. When the doctor returned Sunday morning, the player was even better.

McCleary's fiancee, Tammy Klassen, a nurse, sat with him for most of the night. Mulder called the player's parents, who had been watching the game on TV from their home in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

McCleary's mother worried that the loss of oxygen might have caused brain damage. Mulder said that was unlikely.

"He has the same sense of humor as before," Mulder said.

The doctor said McCleary was able to recognize general manager Rejean Houle when he visited. McCleary also listened to coach Alain Vigneault by cell phone.

"He was frustrated that he couldn't talk," Mulder said. "I don't think he had any impairment of his brain at all."

Houle said McCleary squeezed his hand and gave him a thumb's-up sign.

"He's a good kid with a lot of courage," Houle said. "I've been in hockey a long time and I've seen bad head injuries and cuts, but this was the worst I've ever seen."

McCleary wears a visor when he plays because of two career-threatening eye injuries in the last five years. Mulder said it was unlikely any extra protection could have helped.

"A throat guard can help, but you can't play in a suit of armor," he said.

 
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