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

March 12, 2001
March 12, 2001

Table of Contents
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 young stars

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!"

This is an article from the March 12, 2001 issue Original Layout

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 1/2 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."

At 2 p.m. Pam and Wally finally arrived. That was the first time
Bryan got emotional. "He cried when he saw them," says Smith.
"There was a certain amount of grieving. You don't face something
like that without a period of grief."

Though they all feared that Bryan's hockey career was over, the
overriding emotion was relief that Bryan was going to be all
right. "None of us gave a damn about hockey," Pam says. "You
worry about him being able to have some sort of normal life."

A stream of reporters and well-wishers came by the next day, and
most of them were politely turned away. Then a young man, nervous
and downcast, showed up. Pam and Wally recognized Hossa right
away. After the accident the television cameras had zoomed in on
him in the penalty box, capturing an expression that seemed to be
fright. "He could hardly talk at the hospital," Wally says. "He
must have apologized to us four or five times. That was a wild
swing with his stick that he shouldn't have made, but it was an
accident. That's sports."

"Our hearts went out to him," Pam says. "He was a hurting puppy,

Hossa teared up as he went to the bedside to speak to Berard. In
any language it would be hard to find the right words. In a
second language, in an adopted country, to a man he had never
spoken with, it was impossible. Hossa's tears became his words.
Berard, still calm, told Hossa he bore him no hard feelings.
Amazingly, he didn't. "He said, 'It was an accident, a freak
accident. It could have been me doing it to you,'" Hossa
remembers. "He was a very strong man in the hospital. Very

Bryan Berard was six days past his 23rd birthday the night of
the accident. Marian Hossa, a talented right wing from Trencin,
Slovakia, was only 21. In many ways these young men had led
parallel lives, half a world apart. Both came from hockey
families and were identified early as among the best players of
their age groups. Both moved smoothly from level to level, from
town teams to all-star teams to international teams--always with
their eyes fixed on the NHL. Both moved away from home as
teenagers and led major junior teams to the finals of the
prestigious Memorial Cup; Berard's Detroit club lost in 1995,
Hossa's Portland team won in '98. Both players were NHL Rookie
of the Year finalists; Berard won the award in '97, Hossa
finished second two years later. Both were a solid 6'1" and
about 200 pounds. Both were soft-spoken, humble, shy.

There were differences, though. Hossa was a classic European
forward, fast and nifty, with soft hands and a nonconfrontational
nature. He liked the open ice and abhorred the physical nature of
the North American game. He'd nearly left by Christmas of his
first pro season, with Portland in the rough-and-tumble Western
Hockey League. He was 18, homesick, getting whacked every night.
He decided he'd stick it out for one more year. If he didn't make
the NHL by 19, he was going home.

Berard was a defenseman with superb offensive skills, a playmaker
whose game resembled that of the New York Rangers' Brian Leetch.
But he was also a tough kid who didn't mind dropping his gloves.
He had to be tough, growing up in Woonsocket, one of those gritty
New England towns whose mills had shut down and whose population
was declining. "Part of growing up was learning to defend
yourself on the street," Berard says.

"Hockey was in his genes," Pam Berard says of Bryan, the third of
six children. Berard is French Canadian. The Berards' ancestors,
like those of hundreds of Woonsocket families, moved down from
hockey-mad Quebec to work in the textile mills in the 19th
century. Pam's father and brother played hockey in high school.
Wally played in as many as three adult leagues at once when Bryan
was a kid, traveling to games as far away as Montreal.

Bryan and his younger brothers, Greg and Bruce, often skated till
dark on the town ice rink five minutes from their house. Less
than a mile away was Mount Saint Charles Academy, a parochial
school with a juggernaut of a hockey team that wins the state
championship every year--23 in a row and counting. Nine NHLers and
two No. 1 draft choices, including Berard, have played for Mount
Saint Charles.

Berard left Mount Saint Charles after his junior year, convincing
his parents he needed to face the stronger competition in major
junior hockey to reach the NHL. In his first season for Detroit
he fought Wayne Primeau, now a 6'3", 225-pound power forward for
the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I thought I was a pretty tough kid
until major junior," says Berard. "Then I realized that wasn't my

His game was initiating offense from the back line, and scouts
saw that he was the complete package: size, skill, speed and
toughness. In July 1995 Berard was selected first in the NHL

Slovakia, with only 5 1/2 million people, produces more than its
share of world-class hockey players. The storied Stastny
brothers--Peter, Anton and Marian--became NHL stars in the 1980s,
before Slovakia split from the Czech Republic. Current league
standouts include Pavol Demitra of the St. Louis Blues, Zigmund
Palffy of the Los Angeles Kings and Miroslav Satan of the Buffalo
Sabres. In the 1999 World Championships a 20-year-old kid named
Marian Hossa scored five goals in six games and left scouts
wondering if he might not prove to be the best Slovakian of all.

Hossa is one of the rare players who can beat an NHL defenseman
one-on-one. One time he'll feint to his backhand, the next to his
forehand; a third time he'll do a head fake, then slip the puck
between the defenseman's legs. Hockey is in Hossa's genes, too:
His father, Frantisek, was a pro player in Czechoslovakia.
Frantisek never coached his two sons when they were kids, but he
helped them build the makeshift rink in the playground below
their two-bedroom apartment in the western Slovakian city of

That's where Marian honed his skills with his brother, Marcel,
now 19, who would become the first-round draft pick of the
Montreal Canadiens in 2000. The boys built boards out of plywood
stolen from a construction site. Nearly every day after school
they played four-on-four with other kids from the apartment
complex. "You try all the moves, and there's no checking, nothing
physical," says Marian.

Between the fifth and eighth grades Marian attended a hockey
school that attracted the most gifted players in Trencin. At 12
he played in Quebec's world-renowned pee-wee tournament. Five
years later he made Slovakia's national junior team. At 17 Hossa
played first line for Dukla Trencin, the team sponsored by the
army in the top Slovak pro league, skating against men in their
20s and 30s. When he scored five goals in six games for Slovakia
in the 1997 World Junior Championships, Marshall Johnston,
Ottawa's director of player personnel, was in attendance. In part
because of his recommendation, the Senators made Hossa their
first draft pick that summer, the 12th player taken.

Hossa played seven games with the Senators during the 1997-98
season, but he spent most of the year getting roughed up with
Portland. "What am I doing here?" he would ask himself when he
came home at night. He was living with an American family, trying
to learn the language. He was a force--he scored 45 goals in 53
games--but needed to improve his defensive game.

Hossa's play in his own end got better, and he starred in the
playoffs, scoring 13 goals in 16 games as Portland cruised to the
championship. The victory, however, came with a price. In the
final minutes of regulation in the clinching game, Hossa was hit
with a leg check that tore both the anterior and medial cruciate
ligaments in his left knee. He was flown to Ottawa for
reconstructive surgery and was told he couldn't skate again for
six months. Hossa, then 19, spent less than two weeks in Slovakia
that summer. The rest of the time he lived in a hotel room in a
city where he knew virtually no one, lifting weights and
rehabilitating his knee. It was the loneliest time of his life.
But it proved a blessing because by that fall he'd put on 12
pounds of muscle, and the shifty European was suddenly difficult
to knock off the puck. When the knee healed, Hossa was in the NHL
to stay.

If negotiations had gone differently, Hossa and Berard might have
been teammates on the Senators. But Berard, who was also drafted
by Ottawa, couldn't come to terms with the team, and he returned
to the junior ranks in September 1995, two years before Hossa
arrived. Berard put together another outstanding season in
Detroit, finishing with 89 points in 56 games, and was named
major junior hockey's defenseman of the year. On Jan. 23, 1996,
the Senators, who realized they weren't going to strike a deal
with Berard, traded him to the New York Islanders, who signed him
to a three-year contract.

The next season the 19-year-old Berard scored 48 points for the
Islanders and appeared on track to become one of the league's
star rearguards. "Things came easily that first year in the NHL,"
Berard says. "I didn't work out as hard in the off-season as I
should have. My second year I started guessing too much. I'd
always depended on my speed to make up for my mistakes, but I
couldn't do it at this level."

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 netminder
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 face-down 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

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."

Before returning to Slovakia he called Berard, who assured Hossa
that he was going to be fine and told him he needed to get the
accident out of his mind and to get on with his career. Hossa
spent the summer trying to forget. He hung out with friends, swam
in a lake and played tennis nearly every day. No traveling. No

That self-devised remedy seems to have worked. In 64 games
through Sunday, he had 26 goals and 35 assists, second in both
categories on the Eastern Conference-leading Senators. He was +22
and had played in the All-Star Game. "He's like Steve Yzerman or
Sergei Fedorov, excellent at both ends of the ice," Ottawa coach
Jacques Martin says of Hossa. "He doesn't cheat, so I can play
him in the last minute of the game."

Still, the accident is never far from his mind. It pops up at
unexpected times, hitting him like a blow to the gut. He was
changing TV channels earlier this season when a replay of the
accident flashed across the screen. "I try not to think about
it," Hossa says, his body tensing visibly when the subject of
Berard's injury is broached. "It's done, and there's nothing I
can do. It was an awful thing to have happened, but talking about
it is not going to help me focus on the game."

Hossa is eager to redeem himself in the playoffs, to prove that
his miserable showing last spring was an aberration. "I'm pretty
happy with my season so far, but in the playoffs everybody starts
over," he says. "It's another challenge. You have to be a little
meaner than in the regular season. Meaner and tougher mentally."

"To be honest, I'm happy he's having a good year," Berard says of
Hossa. "He should put it behind him."

For Berard, however, that hasn't been possible: No amount of
willpower can bring back eyesight. In the months following the
first round of surgeries, he struggled with routine undertakings
because his depth perception was impaired. He sometimes missed
his glass when pouring water into it. (He still has to
concentrate hard on that task.) How was he going to knock down
bouncing pucks? Find and clear a rebound? Defend himself against
a blind-side forechecker?

Through the Christmas holidays, Berard told friends and family he
hoped to be back with the Maple Leafs by the end of February.
Last summer he began working out at a gym, and in November he
started skating a few times a week with the Providence College
team. He was shooting on goalies, playing three-on-three games,
getting used to wearing a face shield. "Passing, stickhandling,
taking passes I'm fine," Berard said in December. "It's in the
corners that it's tough, battling with a guy one-on-one. That's
where I need my vision to improve."

A little-known NHL bylaw states that players must have a minimum
of 20/400 vision in each eye, and Berard's damaged eye fell well
short of that standard. (The vision in his right eye is so poor
that it cannot be measured.) Things became bleaker for him in
January when Chang discovered that scar tissue had formed over
the injured eye, further limiting the player's vision. Berard
underwent a sixth operation last month to remove that tissue.
While the procedure was successful, the reality of his situation
finally hit Berard, and on Feb. 26 he announced his retirement.
"Four doctors have stated pretty clearly that my eyesight is not
going to get better," Berard said. "I'm not going to see 20/400."

He spoke without bitterness. What could have been a sad story
about a young star's career nipped in the bud has become a
lesson in human resilience. The people who know Berard
best--parents, siblings, teammates, doctors, friends--believe
that he will live a fulfilled and productive life. "I've never
heard him be angry, not for one minute," his mother says. "Until
you're hit with adversity, you never know how you'll react. He's
so strong. Bryan's going to be O.K. no matter what."

Soon Berard will receive a tax-free payment of $6 million in
disability-insurance coverage. Tom Laidlaw, Berard's agent, has
offered him a job working in his Greenwich, Conn., office,
representing and recruiting young players. Berard would also like
to coach part time. "USA Hockey has talked to me about working
with some of their select teams," he says. "It hasn't really hit
me that my playing career is over. I guess it will when the guys
are working out this summer, and it's time to go back to camp."

COLOR PHOTO GRIM SIGHT Seconds after Hossa's stick blade slashed his right eye, a terrified Berard lay in a pool of crimson.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA WORK IN PROGRESS Last season Berard, who was the first choice in the 1995 draft, started hitting his stride with the Maple Leafs.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ON THE REBOUND Hossa hit the skids after the accident, but this season he's an All-Star and among the league's top scorers.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ANDREW BRUSSO