WAYBACK WHEN (LGS) — Clint Malarchuk stands in the Zamboni entrance at Memorial Auditorium and watches as thousands of Sabres' fans — from the lower golds and the reds below to the upper blues and the oranges above — get to their feet.
Two nights earlier, 20 feet from the spot where he is now standing, Malarchuk was a dead man, his body's life-force squirting uncontrollably onto the ice.
"I thought I was dying then, I really did. I thought I didn't have long to live."
John Skakuj was sitting way up in the oranges, the very top section of the Aud, his back almost up against a concrete wall. The 20-year-old security guard from Lockport had been working a lot of very long shifts lately, and the night off was badly needed, even if all he could afford was the cheapest seat in the house. But the cheapest seat happened also to be the best seat in the house: from the oranges, Skakuj had a perfect — almost dizzying — view of the Buffalo goal crease below.
Color commentator Mike Robitaille and longtime Voice of the Sabres Ted Darling were working on what had been a routine Niagara Frontier Sports Network television broadcast through the opening minutes of the game.
Brian Blessing, a noon sports anchor for Channel 4 in Buffalo, was sitting in the upper golds with his little boy.
There was little drama in the air, and the Aud wasn't close to being sold out for the Wednesday night game with the St. Louis Blues, not exactly a rival that fired up the fans. Only six games were left in the regular season, and the Sabres had clinched a playoff berth.
Buffalo scored an early goal and led 1-0 when Sabres' defenseman Uwe Krupp jumped over the boards as Blues' forward Steve Tuttle turned a wide semicircle in his own zone. Clint Malarchuk nervously shuffled his skates in the goal crease as the play reached center ice.
John Skakuj was paying the popcorn vendor and dropped a handful of coins as he glanced quickly down at the ice as Krupp and Tuttle charged into the Sabre goal crease.
Suddenly, the crowd of 14,000 was roaring as if the Sabres had just scored a goal, and Mike Robitaille was screaming.
"Oh my God, what happened!?"
Brian Blessing said a prayer as nine fans fainted in their seats.
It was a tough season for starting goaltenders in Buffalo in 1988-89. Tom Barrasso was the number-one goalie to start the season, but he quickly became expendable and was traded to Pittsburgh in November when Daren Puppa started playing out of his mind. Puppa, however, broke his arm on January 27 in a collision at the Aud with the Montreal Canadiens' Mike McPhee and was lost for the season.
Jacques Cloutier couldn't hold on to the starting job either. "Cloutier had played virtually every important moment since the Puppa injury, and it was obvious he was running out of gas," writes Budd Bailey, author of "The History of the Buffalo Sabres."
Cloutier and his defense were both running on empty: they had allowed 38 goals-against in a span of seven games. General Manager Gerry Meehan had to make a trade for some help in goal.
On March 6, Clint Malarchuk became the embodiment of that help. Meehan traded defenseman Calle Johansson and a second-round pick in 1989 (Byron Dafoe) to the Washington Capitals for Malarchuk, defenseman Grant Ledyard and a sixth-round pick in 1991 (Brian Holzinger). Malarchuk, a fourth-round pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1981, had become a victim of a numbers game in Washington, which had both Pete Peeters and Don Beaupre in goal.
Like traded players often do, Malarchuk made an immediate splash with his new team.
He shut out the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden in his Sabre debut on March 8 and won three of his first five starts in goal. His goals-against average and his save percentage were equally impressive.
Clint Malarchuk had been a Buffalo Sabre for only 16 days when his life almost ended at 140 Main Street in Buffalo, New York on March 22, 1989.
Uwe Krupp drove Steve Tuttle toward the right post, and Tuttle's skate came up and caught Clint Malarchuk on the side of the neck as the net dislodged. At first, there was little concern and just a little blood, but quickly the severity of Malarchuk's injury became all too apparent.
Watch the play on YouTube. Look at a still photo. Warning: Extremely graphic.
"After the collision I remember Clint on his hands and knees to the left of the crease," John Skakuj remembers. "I could see that he was bleeding and when he took his mask off you could tell that it was his jugular vein that was cut. The blood poured onto the ice in spurts with every beat of his heart."
A six-inch gash had been opened up in the largest vein in Malarchuk's body, and a puddle of blood filled the goal crease, seeping outward in an ever-enlarging circle.
"Oh! Look at the blood! Take the... oh man! That is the... Please take the camera off and don't even bring it over there. Please! Just keep it away!" shouted Robitaille. "Oh terrible! Oh my God, what happened!?"
In the NFSN control room, a producer looked at the monitor wall and quickly told the cameraman to pan off the shot. Viewers never saw a close-up of Malarchuk.
Watch the actual broadcast. Warning: Extremely graphic.
"Oh my God! Oh Jesus!" said a breathless Darling, talking right over his partner.
The frightening scene — something out of a horror film and not a hockey game — stunned the fans at the Aud, some of whom can be seen leaving their seats as NFSN went to a commercial.
"The crowd seemed to panic and everyone was screaming in disbelief," says Skakuj. "It put chills through my spine because we were all watching this guy die in front of us and there was nothing that we could do about it."
Sabre John Tucker, on the ice when the accident occurred, felt the same helplessness.
"When he took his mask off, it was pretty shocking and disruptive. I had never seen anything like that in hockey," said Tucker. "It was a helpless feeling to be standing there and not know what to do. I had to skate away."
So did Rick Meagher, the Blue who sent the puck in front of the net on the play, but he gave a quick glance back.
Dave Andreychuk and Doug Bodger stood by their teammate.
Clint Malarchuk was 27 years old. Not one of the terrified spectators gave him a snowball's chance in hell of seeing 28.
"Pizza (Sabres' trainer Jim Pizzutelli) was gone in a flash with the towel," Sabres' coach Ted Sator said the next day. Pizzutelli took long, sliding steps on the ice to get to Malarchuk in exactly 10 seconds and, after putting on some rubber gloves, press that towel against the gushing wound and staunch the flow of blood. Someone screamed out for a stretcher. Uwe Krupp rushed to the nearby players' entrance behind the Buffalo net.
"No way!" Malarchuk insisted, instead calmly skating off the ice through the doorway.
At the Aud, like most older buildings, the players exited the playing surface at one end of the ice, not behind the bench like they do at many modern venues like HSBC Arena. Malarchuk was lucky to be at the lockerroom end of the Aud in the first period.
"I thank God it didn't happen at the other end of the ice," said Sator.
In the lockerroom, team doctor Peter James took over Malarchuk's care, and the bleeding was controlled. Malarchuk was rushed by ambulance to Buffalo General Hospital.
"Can you have me back for the third period?" Malarchuk asked a paramedic. Laughter filled the speeding ambulance.
Skakuj felt lightheaded and nauseous and had to take a short walk to clear his head. He was not alone. Three fans complained of chest pain, nine fainted and countless others were, like Skakuj, sick to their stomachs.
"Usually things like that don't bother me, but I was overwhelmed. For the rest of the game, everyone seemed to be in a fog because I'm sure Clint's welfare was on their minds," Skakuj recalls.
The game was finished in a stunned silence, the Auditorium a literal Mausoleum. Jacques Cloutier replaced Malarchuk in goal after attendants shoveled the frozen blood off the ice. The Blues went on to win the game 2-1, but no one really cared.
At Buffalo General Hospital, Malarchuk underwent surgery to repair his severed jugular vein. After the surgery, doctors offered a prognosis for a full recovery. Remarkably, Malarchuk was released from the hospital the next afternoon but not before he spoke to the media with great emotion and offbeat humor about his near-death experience.
"As my heart would beat, it would squirt. I thought I was dying then, I really did. I knew it was my jugular vein and I thought I didn't have long to live," he remembered.
Malarchuk said he surprised himself by remaining so calm throughout the whole ordeal.
"I didn't go into any real shock. I think maybe if I had any shock, it was this morning," he told the assembled press. "I'm not going off on a stretcher, I never will. The day I go off on a stretcher, they're going to have to make funeral arrangements. I'm proud of that fact that I got off the ice on my own power."
The man who would become well known in Buffalo for his sense of humor and his practical jokes broke the tension when he was asked to explain the medical procedure that he had undergone the night before.
"I think they just did like a frontal lobotomy through my neck."
For those who know Malarchuk's life story, it was a very revealing comment.
For background, read The Sporting News cover story from 1995.
In the hours after the injury, Buffalo reacted like a true City of Good Neighbors. Malarchuk was one of the city's newest neighbors, but the Sabres were still deluged with flowers, get-well cards and phone calls. An elderly couple in South Buffalo stayed up all night praying for the goaltender, and a boy in Montana refused to go to school until his mother called the Sabres' office the next morning and found out that the goaltender was OK.
On March 24, two days after the incident, the fans could finally release some of their pent-up concern. Malarchuk visited the Aud for some medical treatment and a visit with his teammates before their game with the Vancouver Canucks. Malarchuk was hanging around the building, and someone convinced him to make an appearance at ice level. During a break in the action, Malarchuk walked to the Zamboni entrance.
Public address announcer Budd Bailey remembers the words he spoke to draw everyone's attention to Malarchuk, remembers almost choking up.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please look at the locker room end of the ice and welcome to tonight's game Sabres' goalie Clint Malarchuk."
The crowd got to its feet for the most emotional standing ovation in the history of the Buffalo Sabres, a two-minute outpouring of amazement, relief and joy.
Malarchuk missed the next five games of the regular season but returned to the same goal crease where the injury occurred for the final few minutes of the Sabres' season-finale at the Aud on April 2, a 4-2 win over his former team, the Quebec Nordiques. After some mop-up duty — no pun intended — Malarchuk was congratulated by players on both teams for his remarkable recovery.
Then, in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins, Malarchuk was back in an even bigger way. Coach Ted Sator's controversial move — Jacques Cloutier had shut out the Bruins in game one — backfired in a 5-3 Boston victory that evened the series. The Bruins went on to eliminate Malarchuk and the Sabres in six games.
Malarchuk played three more seasons in Buffalo, never really winning the starting job and finishing with a .500 record and a 3.40 goals-against average in his 102 games played in a Sabre sweater. His statistics are not what everyone will always remember.
After his playing days in Western New York ended, Malarchuk headed west for the 1992-93 season. He played 27 games with the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League then worked his way back east, but only as far as Las Vegas, for five seasons with the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder.
Malarchuk and his wife Christy set up residence on their Canuck Ranch in Vegas and raised emus — flightless, fast-running Australian birds similar to an ostrich — and three kids, Kelli, Jed and Dallyn.
From 1993-1995, he played so brilliantly in goal for the Thunder that he ended up becoming the first player in that organization to have his number retired. His number 30 — the same one he wore in Buffalo on that fateful night in March 1989 — hangs above the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
When the Thunder found itself without a backup goaltender in the 1996-97 season, Malarchuk — then the team's assistant general manager and assistant coach — came out of retirement, put the pads back on and even entered a game in a shootout situation. Malarchuk stopped four shooters, and the Thunder won.
It was sudden death in the nets, but Clint Malarchuk didn't flinch. He had been there before.
"It was sickening," said Barry Smith, an assistant coach for the Sabres at the time of the injury and now a Detroit Red Wing associate coach. "It's a very, very hard thing to get over. I saw it a lot in flashbacks. But you know what? I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often."
In October 1995, in an exhibition game between Swedish hockey teams Brynas and Mora, Bengt Akerblom's neck was slashed by Mora player Andreas Olsson's skate in a freak accident. By the time Akerblom reached the hospital, he had lost too much blood and died.
Today, Clint Malarchuk is 45 years old and the goaltending coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets. He still lives on the ranch. He still has the scar.