How Maple Leafs staff helped save a rec-leaguer from a skate cut to the throat: ‘I thought I was going to die’

How Maple Leafs staff helped save a rec-leaguer from a skate cut to the throat: ‘I thought I was going to die’

It was inside the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room that Ike Werner first allowed himself to believe he was going to survive.

After having his throat cut accidentally by a skate blade during a Sunday afternoon rec league game at the NHL team’s practice facility earlier this month, a terrifying experience turned surreal when the 37-year-old looked over and saw Maple Leafs forward Nick Robertson receiving treatment in an adjacent room.

“That was my visual,” Werner told The Athletic. “Him being worked on.”

Werner had taken note of the luxury cars behind the gated section of the parking lot when he pulled into Ford Performance Centre that afternoon. The Zamboni was resurfacing the ice earlier than usual, too, so he figured the Leafs had skated on Rink 2 before his “Prestige Worldwide” team faced off against the “Jagrbombs” in the True North Hockey League.

That fact became much more significant to him when, on his third shift of the game, he suffered a gruesome cut and was scrambling for help, only to find himself under the care of Leafs athletic therapists Paul Ayotte and Neill Davidson.

“They were so good,” Werner said. “They were so calm and that helped kind of ground me, if you will, because I was spiraling.”

It’s not a spot any rec-leaguer could reasonably imagine finding themselves in — even after the October death of former NHLer Adam Johnson while playing professionally in England.

That tragedy cast a light on the need for more cut-resistance equipment in the sport and has seen players at all levels start wearing it. Werner recalled the topic being discussed among his men’s league team in the fall and said he even tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase a neck guard at that time.

As one of the older players in a reasonably competitive league, he was more cautious than most when it came to his gear by wearing wrist guards, cut-resistant socks and, after previously wearing a visor (pictured at top), recently moving to a full face shield.

“When Adam Johnson died, you couldn’t buy neck guards,” Werner said. “I tried. Now, that was a couple months ago, and I probably could have kept on it but didn’t.

“One of the things I said to my wife was, ‘It’s rec league. It’s not as fast. The equipment isn’t at that level. The skates aren’t as sharp. It’s not going to happen in rec league.”’

Except when it did.

Werner has no recollection of what happened. None of his teammates were sure immediately afterward, either.

In fact, it wasn’t until the convenor of Werner’s league sent a clip taken from a 360-degree camera installed in the arena on Tuesday night that anyone had a clear picture of what transpired.

The play looked as harmless as they come. Standing in the slot in front of his own goal, Werner poked at a loose puck as an opponent came on to it and wound up knocking him off balance. As the opponent fell to the ice, his right skate kicked up and caught Werner under the face mask.

Incredibly, the force of the impact didn’t knock Werner off his feet even though it left him significant bruising to his upper chest and neck area that remained a week after the Feb. 4 incident occurred. It also opened a cut that required 12 stitches to close.

The video clip confirmed the only aspect of the sequence Werner recalled clearly: He picked up his dropped stick after the collision and skated under his own power to the bench.

What also stood out in his memory was how little pain he felt in the immediate aftermath of the play and how little blood there seemed to be. He says it felt like a small abrasion or jersey burn. Except when he returned to the bench an official told him that he needed to leave the playing surface immediately.

Longtime teammate Jack McVeigh accompanied Werner to the dressing room after getting a brief look at what his buddy was dealing with.

“It was quite shocking that he was alive once you saw the injury,” McVeigh said. “He took his hand off of his neck and you’re like, ‘Oooooh. Holy f—.’

“I don’t even know what went through my head other than ‘You have to go get that dealt with.’”

Werner didn’t lose his own cool until catching a glimpse of the gash in a mirror once back in the dressing room. According to McVeigh, he immediately went white.

There was a brief discussion about calling an ambulance and getting to the arena lobby until Werner remembered the Leafs were in the building. He got the attention of Armando Cavalheiro, who works as a cameraman for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and was standing nearby after covering practice. Cavalheiro started banging on a back door to the dressing room until it was opened and Werner was let in.

He was immediately tended to by Davidson and Ayotte, the Leafs medical staffers, who applied pressure to the neck area and examined the injury. They ultimately closed it with Steri Strips and bandaged Werner up after determining that he needed to go to the hospital for further testing before stitches were put in.

Just as importantly, they provided reassurance that everything was going to be OK.

“They were so good,” Werner said. “Asking me some questions: ‘Can you breathe OK?’ ‘Can you swallow OK?’ Like those types of things to just rule out any severe, severe things.

“They’re like ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’”

Under normal circumstances, they might not have been around to help someone injured during a 4 p.m. rec league game.

The Leafs typically practice at noon but didn’t skate that day until 2:45 p.m., because the team was returning from the All-Star break and league rules dictated that no mandatory activities were scheduled before mid-afternoon.

A father to a 3-month-old, Werner went alone to St. Joseph’s Hospital with only a quick message sent to his wife that he’d been cut and was going to be OK. He was admitted immediately to a hospital bed and received his stitches by 5:15 p.m. — only an hour after leaving the ice.

Because the skate that grazed him was so sharp, the cut was clean and easily stitched closed. A local anesthesia was applied and Werner began bleeding heavily while doctors examined how deep the wound was. He had to throw out the shirt he was wearing in favor of one McVeigh dropped off for him at the hospital.

However, it was a good-news scene. A CT Scan showed that the skate had cut into muscle but not through it, making surgery unnecessary.

One of the emergency room doctors told Werner she plays hockey at a high level recreationally and vowed not to return to the ice without first getting a neck guard of her own.

“It missed my vocal cords, my esophagus, arteries, veins, everything,” Werner said. “I’m just lucky. I’m just lucky.”

He didn’t even spend the night in hospital.

Ike Werner has upgraded to a full face shield since this photo was taken. He couldn’t find a neck guard, though.

Werner’s brush with death brought him in contact with five different highly-trained medical professionals between the time he was cut by the skate and when he eventually returned home to a long embrace from his wife.

Each of them told him he was lucky to be walking out the door.

That’s left him reflecting on all of the what-ifs from a day that will almost certainly stick with him for the rest of his life.

For starters, the weather had been unseasonably nice on that Sunday, and during a walk with his newborn, he thought about skipping the hockey game altogether. What if he chose to stay home?

What if his team wasn’t short a defenseman for that game and he was playing his normal position at forward instead?

What if he’d gotten up and tried to rejoin the play rather than skating to the bench after being cut? Would his body have been able to handle the continued exertion?

What if the cut was just a little bit deeper or angled a centimeter or two in another direction?

What if the Leafs were operating on their normal schedule that afternoon and the medical staff wasn’t still in the building to answer his call for help?

“I thought I was going to die and they said, ‘You’re not going to die. You’re very lucky.’ And they patched me up,” Werner said. “I credit them with just making sure I was OK. At that point, I wasn’t bleeding that much, but if I had just taken myself to the hospital who knows what would have happened?

“It ended up being a lot of blood.”

He doesn’t consider himself a religious or spiritual person, but he’s certainly got family and friends who believe some greater power was looking out for him that day.

It wasn’t easy to calm his mind long enough to get a restful sleep in the immediate aftermath of a situation where Werner himself notes: “I almost orphaned my kid and my wife was going to be a widower.”

About the last place he expected to find himself when showing up for a Sunday rec league game was inside the Maple Leafs dressing room.

He’s lucky he did.

“I’m not a Leaf fan — I’m a Calgary fan — but I’ve just been joking, ‘I might be a Leafs fan now,’” Werner said. “Not from a team perspective, but a behind-the-scenes perspective.”

(Photos courtesy of Ike Werner)