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Blood on the Ice
E.M. Swift
March 12, 2001
A year ago an accidental high stick forever changed the lives of two of the NHL's brightest stars
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March 12, 2001

Blood On The Ice

A year ago an accidental high stick forever changed the lives of two of the NHL's brightest stars

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Berard's plus-minus rating sank to a miserable-32 that second season, and by 1998-99 the Islanders were losing patience with him. "They felt there were areas of his game that even experience wouldn't reconcile," says Bill Watters, Toronto's assistant to the president. New York traded Berard for veteran Leafs net-minder Felix Potvin on Jan. 9, 1999. "It was like a new beginning for me," says Berard. "Being on a contender made things fun again."

He played 38 games for the Leafs before the end of the regular season, then got his first exposure to playoff hockey, getting nine points in 17 games while helping Toronto advance to the Eastern Conference finals, in which they were eliminated by the Sabres. NHL defensemen take years to develop, and Berard felt he was just learning the nuances of the position. He liked Toronto and the focus the Leafs had on winning the Stanley Cup.

In the team's first 69 games in 1999-2000, Berard continued to mature under coach Pat Quinn, who had been an NHL defenseman for nine years. Berard was +11 and making good decisions. "Pat showed me some tricks and taught me to be much more selective about when to jump into the offense," Berard says. "Things were going well again. Then, boom, a brick wall."

After the thrill of discovering that his injured eye could still respond to light, Berard was disheartened when the eye took a turn for the worse and again registered nothing but blackness. He was sent to a specialist in New York City, Stanley Chang, who operated on the eye three times between March and July. Chang reattached the retina, cleaned out the dried, clotted blood that had built up—that, along with the detached retina, was what blocked the light—and replaced the lost vitreous humor with a silicon oil that helped the eyeball gain some semblance of its former shape. "It's basically a thick gob of stuff that keeps the eye from [collapsing]," says Berard, who for more than a month was forced to lie facedown or on his side nearly all the time until the eye stabilized.

"Our goals for the operations were met," Chang says. "His optic nerve is O.K., and he has some peripheral vision. He can see large letters on the chart."

However, they are little more than blurry shapes and shadows that Berard knows to be letters. Seeing through the silicon oil is like looking through a wall of air bubbles, a condition that will not change appreciably as long as the oil is there. Chang can't take the oil out, though, because Berard's ciliary body—the gland responsible for producing the fluid inside the eye—isn't functioning and may never. "If the pressure in his eye comes up, we can take the oil out, and he'll probably regain more vision," Chang says. "It may be another year before we'll know."

Hossa's challenges after the accident were entirely different. He'd been enjoying the sort of year that Johnston, now the Senators' general manager, had foreseen when drafting him. The young Slovakian led the team with 27 goals and had scored nine times in his last 14 games before the accident. But things quickly soured. "I became less aggressive," he says. "I was afraid to do something that might hurt someone. Hockey wasn't fun anymore."

In the last 14 games of the season Hossa had only two goals. "We were aware that his production might fall off," Johnston says. "The media kept talking about the accident everywhere he went. We had professional help lined up if Marian wanted it. I wasn't going to tell him he had to talk to a sports psychologist, but we offered him the chance. Marian said thanks, but I'll get back to you if I need it."

The Senators brass tried to downplay Hossa's slump, attributing it more to bad luck than to repercussions of the accident. There is a fine line, though, that goal scorers must walk between creative abandon and recklessness, and Hossa had pulled back too far. As fate would have it, Ottawa faced Toronto in the first round of the playoffs. No Leafs player said anything untoward to Hossa, but the memory of the accident was fresh, as was Quinn's withering comment the day after the injury: "Guys who play with their sticks up like that are either dirty guys or scared guys."

Over the playoff series, which the Senators lost in six games, Hossa's line was held without a point, and he was a dismal-8. Afterward Johnston again approached Hossa about talking to a sports psychologist, but the player declined. "What I needed was time away," he says. "I put hockey behind me. That's what the summer is for."

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