Even now, a year later, it takes a strong stomach to watch a videotape of the accident. Wally Berard has looked at it dozens of times, trying to figure out exactly what happened, what Marian Hossa was thinking. Bryan Berard's agony is too naked, his legs making little frog kicks as he lies facedown on the ice. The pool of blood is too thick, like a crimson mat laid beneath his head. Though the audio didn't pick it up, Wally knows the words his terrified son was crying to the first teammate to reach him, Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph: "I can't see!"
It was the night of March 11, 2000, and Wally and his wife, Pam, had been watching the game between the Leafs and the Ottawa Senators on satellite TV at home in Woonsocket, R.I. They knew Bryan's injury was bad. Within 20 minutes someone from the Leafs had called, confirming their worst fears. Well, not their worst ones—those hung in the shadows all through that terrible night. Hampered by bad weather that had blanketed the Northeast, Wally and Pam couldn't get a flight to Ottawa, where the game had been played, until noon the next day. Every time their phone rang something had changed, and the news seemed to get worse: Doctors were having trouble stopping the bleeding. Bryan was being transferred to another hospital because the first one wasn't equipped to deal with an eye injury so severe.
One of the Leafs' owners offered to fly his private jet to pick up Wally and Pam. Why would he do that if he wasn't worried that Bryan might die? It seemed possible, with all that blood. So every time the phone rang, Pam cringed. Then she began to worry about the health of Wally, who was 59 and had diabetes. Pam, 50, reckons she must have aged 100 years that night.
The teams were skating four-on-four, and the Senators were pressing the attack. An Ottawa player shot the puck on net and Berard cleared the rebound to teammate Mats Sundin near the left-wing circle. But Sundin had difficulty controlling the bouncing puck as Hossa swooped after it with lightning quickness. Hossa wheeled to one-time the puck toward the Toronto goal just as Sundin slapped it away. Hossa's stick continued its trajectory, and he missed the puck by six feet. Strangely, and recklessly, he continued with a full-blown follow-through. The blade of his stick struck Berard in the right eye. Berard fell as if shot, his stick cartwheeling high in the air as he threw his hands to his face.
"The carelessness of Marian Hossa is something I'll never get over," says one Maple Leafs executive. "He had no business swinging at that puck. It was accidental, but he didn't have to do it."
Berard felt as if he'd been kicked in the eye by a skate blade. Lying on the ice, he opened that eye but saw only darkness. Blood was everywhere, and someone gave him a towel. He was helped from the ice and a wave of nausea swept over him. "Guys were looking at me, and I could tell by their expressions that it was bad," Berard recalls. "It was like the eye exploded."
The blade of Hossa's stick had made a 13-millimeter cut across Berard's eyeball, rupturing it. Amid the blood on the ice at the Corel Centre was Berard's iris and much of the eye's vitreous body, the gelatinous matter that fills the space between the retina and the crystalline lens. "It looked like a bloody version of a soft-boiled egg that's been cut open," says Toronto trainer Brent Smith.
Berard was taken to Ottawa Civic Hospital, then transferred to Ottawa General when it became clear that he needed emergency surgery. The eyeball was flat, like a deflated football, and Berard saw nothing when doctors shined a light in it. Pam and Wally Berard were told that there was no better than a 5% chance Bryan would ever see out of the eye again, and they were asked for permission to remove the eye if necessary. Only if it's a case of life or death, Pam replied. Otherwise she wanted the doctors to wait until she and Wally arrived. "Miracles do happen," Pam said.
The first operation lasted 3� hours, until 4:30 a.m. About three hours later Bryan awakened, and his first thoughts were that it had all been a bad dream. Then he saw Smith, the trainer, who'd stayed with him through the night. "What I remember best was that Bryan was so calm," Smith says. "He never lost it. He never went through the 'Why me?' syndrome. He never expressed a grudge against the player who hit him."
At 11 a.m. the doctors unwrapped the bandages. "Everyone's expectations for recovery were quite low," Smith recalls. "But when they shined a light into the injured eye, Bryan saw it. Everyone's jaw just about hit the floor."