As he knelt next to the goal clutching his slit throat, while blood pulsed out like a fountain and pooled around him, all Clint Malarchuk could think of was to get off live TV so that his mum did not have to watch him die.
The footage remains on YouTube of the extraordinary incident precisely 26 years ago on Sunday when the then 27-year-old ice hockey goaltender suffered one of the most gruesome injuries ever seen in professional sport.
His throat cut by a stray skate, he survived thanks to his team’s trainer reaching into his neck to pinch shut the severed artery that would later need 300 stitches.
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT
Clint Malarchuk’s throat was cut by a stray skate during an NHL game and required 300 stitches
But the traumatic accident led to a spiral of nightmares, insomnia, chronic depression and alcoholism. Twice he tried to kill himself, with the bullet from one attempt still lodged next to his right eye, and only now feels he can cope with his demons thanks to the love of his fourth wife.
Malarchuk was playing for Buffalo Sabres in the NHL against St Louis Blues, when the freak accident left him fighting for his life. Amid shocking, gory scenes, Malarchuk tried and failed to get to his feet, as three pints of blood spilled on to the ice.
‘Once I realised this could be death, my first thought was “get off the ice, go through the gate, get off camera”,’ Malarchuk told The Mail on Sunday. ‘So my mum didn’t have to watch me die.’
Malarchuk’s mother, Jean, both of whose own parents were English, always watched her son’s matches live on TV.
Malarchuk’s traumatic accident led to a spiral of nightmares, insomnia, chronic depression and alcoholism
Amazingly Malarchuk was back playing within 10 days, resumed his career as a player and then became a coach. But three years later, in 1992, trying to obliterate his demons, he drank a bottle of whisky and took pills that led to his heart stopping. His OCD and depression were finally diagnosed. ‘It was the first time the chaos in my head was given a label,’ he says.
At another low, in 2008, drunk and sitting in his barn, he put a gun to his chin, pointed upwards and pulled the trigger. The bullet richocheted off his molars, took out some teeth and a piece of his tongue, went through his top palate and sinus.
His wife Joanie then insisted he undertake the longest and most intense rehab of his life, six months. ‘She is an incredible woman, she saved my life,’ said Malarchuk from their home in Nevada, where he has written a searingly honest auto-biography. ‘I thought at first it might be a kinda hockey book. But the reaction we’ve had has touched people. It’s a book about life.’
It transcends sport, detailing the brutality of depression. ‘It’s everywhere, not exclusive to any occupation, any economic status,’ said Malarchuk. ‘But there is still a stigma around it in sport, where there is constant expectation upon you. I was mentally ill. But I thought I was mentally weak.’
Malarchuk’s story is far from all doom and gloom. He recalls being drafted to the NHL at 20 in 1981, on a salary equivalent to £150,000 a year. The Quebec Nordiques clubhouse had a smoking room and beer fridge. He describes a catalogue of japes, including the time that he and a team-mate, both rodeo men, hired horses and charged them up and down a golf course as colleagues tried to play.
Malarchuk was required to give two press conferences the day after the accident
He recounts the occasion at the Washington Capitals when he met the US President, Ronald Reagan. ‘I wasn’t interested in politics, I talked to him about movies,’ said Malarchuk. He asked Reagan about Barbara Stanwyck, one of the great pin-ups of Reagan’s acting era.
‘Between you and me, Mr President, you ever take a run at that?’ Malarchuk asked. Reagan replied: ‘No, but I sure would have liked to.’ Then he shook Malarchuk’s hand and moved on.
In early March 1989, Malarchuk moved on, traded from the Capitals to the Sabres at short notice. He packed his stuff in his truck, made a seven-hour drive to his new team, kept a clean sheet in his first game and helped his side to three wins and a draw in his first five.
He was an instant hit. Then came the game that has defined his life. The hospital where his life was saved was mobbed by media, some of whom pretended to be staff or relatives to get to Malarchuk, who was required to give two press conferences the day after the accident. He broke down during the second. The hospital could not cope with the ‘circus’ and he was discharged on day two. Astonishingly, he was played as a substitute within 10 days.
Malarchuk’s remarkable story is far from all doom and gloom
‘If I had to go through it again, I think I’d want to come back as quickly as did first time,’ he said. ‘But I shouldn’t. Weakness through the blood loss was an issue. Today you’d also have a counsellor explaining the psychological impact of the trauma who’d be telling you there’s no need to get back quickly. And I would follow their instructions.’
Instead it was 19 years later in the rehab that followed the gun incident, that Malarchuk came to terms with what he now knows was the post-traumatic stress disorder that exacerbated his problems.
Back then, he got on with his job, which included taunts from rival fans, including throat-slashing gestures from Boston Bruins supporters ‘reminding me to die’.
One particularly powerful part of his book takes you deep inside his mind at that time. It might also be the mind of any elite sportsmen, tackling pressure and dark hidden thoughts, obsessed with not failing.
‘I knew I was struggling, but I was too stubborn, maybe too afraid, to ask for help,’ he writes. ‘I was trained to cowboy up. If you get bucked off the horse, you get back on.’
Now, he says, he can acknowledge his problems and ask for help. ‘What’s different is I know what tools I can use to try to handle the issue,’ he said.
His book concludes: ‘I nearly bled out in front of thousands. This is about sharing the rest of me, because I know there’s a reason I’m still breathing.
‘I have PTSD and OCD, depression and alcoholism. I still have meds to take and wounds to heal. I still have a long, tough ride, but I’m tightening my grip and holding on — because this life is a crazy game and I’m determined to win it.’