Hockey is a tough game. Players drop their gloves to engage in fistfights. They hurtle across the ice at speeds between 20 and 30 mph, slamming opponents against the boards and colliding with bone-crushing force. And they do it all with sticks in their hands and very sharp blades attached to their feet—which makes it remarkable that there has been just one death directly related to an on-ice incident in the NHL.
As you enjoy the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, let’s take a look back at some of hockey's most brutal injuries—and how some of them made the sport safer.
Warning: Some of the videos in this post are difficult to watch. Avoid them if you’re squeamish.
1. Clint Malarchuk’s jugular is cut open.
Clint Malarchuk had been the goalie of the Buffalo Sabres for just 16 days when, on March 22, 1989, the skate of St. Louis Blues right winger Steve Tuttle slashed a six-inch gash across the side of his neck, slicing open the jugular vein. Sabres trainer Jim Pizzutelli got to Malarchuk in just 10 seconds and put pressure on the wound with a towel. The goalie skated off the ice and was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where he asked a paramedic, "Can you have me back for the third period?"
Malarchuk underwent emergency surgery (it took 300 stitches to close the wound) and was able to speak to the media the very next day: "As my heart would beat, it would squirt,” he said. “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 missed five regular-season games.
2. Marc Staal takes a puck to the eye.
On March 5, 2013, New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal took a slap shot—which was fired by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen and then deflected off a stick—in the eye. Staal wasn’t wearing a visor. “I couldn’t see a thing, and that was pretty scary,” he said of the injury. “I could see one dot of light. I could see one light bulb. But the guy’s hand would be in front of my face, and there would be nothing there.”
Staal attempted to return to the ice for playoffs that year, but he wasn’t ready, and ultimately came back in September. Starting with the 2013-2014 season, the NHL made visors mandatory for all players entering the league (those who were already in the league could decide for themselves whether or not to wear visors).
3. Nicklas Lidstrom’s "spears" a testicle.
During game three of the 2009 Western Conference Finals, Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom suffered a “nearly catastrophic injury” to his testicle when it was "speared" by the stick of Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp. Believe it or not, Lidstrom didn’t immediately have surgery; in fact, he practiced the next day.
"I thought it was OK that Saturday when I practiced," Lidstrom said, "but Sunday, Sunday I was just in too much pain. I had surgery during [the fourth] game." Doctors weren’t sure if they would be able to save his testicle—"When I first saw the doctor in the morning he asked me if I had any kids, and if I planned on having more kids”—but they did, and Lidstrom was back on the ice just one week after surgery.
4. Richard Zednik gets his throat cut.
Nineteen years after Malarchuk’s injury, during a February 10, 2008 game against the Sabres, Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik’s carotid artery was nearly severed by the skate of teammate Olli Jokinen. He quickly skated off the ice and was rushed to the hospital. An injury of this type “could be fatal, but I wouldn't say he was close to death," Sabres orthopedic surgeon Les Bisson, who attended to Zednik, said later. "If you can stop the bleeding, then you have some time ... I wouldn't say at any point we're thinking, 'He's going to die now.'" Zednik didn’t return to the ice for seven months.
5. Eddie Shore receives a catastrophic ear injury.
At a practice during the 1925-1926 season, Boston Bruins players Eddie Shore and Billy Coutu got into it. During the fight, Shore’s ear was nearly ripped off, possibly by Coutu’s stick. Many doctors said it would have to be amputated—it was hanging by a thread of flesh—but one agreed to reattach it. Shore refused an anesthetic and held a mirror while the doctor sewed the ear back on.
"I was just a farm boy who didn't want his looks messed up," Shore said. "I made him change the last stitch; he would have left a scar!" He reported to practice the next day wearing a helmet (which weren’t mandatory in the NHL until 1979).
6. Max Pacioretty gets hit by Zdeno Chara.
After this brutal check by huge Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara (he's 6' 9" without skates) in a March 2011 game, Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty laid on the ice for seven minutes before being taken off on a gurney. Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber described the hit, which left Pacioretty with a severe concussion and a non-displaced cervical fracture of the fourth vertebra:
"Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara shoved Pacioretty into the padded stanchion that separates the benches in the Bell Centre. Pacioretty's head hit what Canadiens goalie Carey Price would later call 'the turnbuckle,' and Pacioretty snapped backward, falling to the ice like a Raggedy Ann doll."
The puck was nowhere near Pacioretty at the time, making the hit illegal. Chara received a five-minute major and a game misconduct penalty, but no suspension. Meanwhile, in Montreal, fans were calling 911 to report Chara's hit, and Quebec officials considered pressing charges against the captain. Pacioretty recovered in time to play during the 2011-2012 season.
7. Stephane Robidas breaks his leg on the boards.
In the November 29, 2013 game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas attempted to block a pass, fell, and slid forcefully into the end boards, pinning his right leg between them and his body at an awkward angle. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher. "I broke both bones, the tibia and the fibula, and where I broke mine is closer to the ankle," he said later.
The break required surgery, and Robidas never played for the Stars again. He was traded to the Anaheim Ducks in early March 2014, and made his Ducks debut shortly after.
8. Ted Green is slashed by Wayne Maki.
During a September 1969 exhibition game, St. Louis Blues left winger Wayne Maki and Boston Bruins defenseman Ted Green engaged in a stick fight that broadcaster Dan Kelly called “one of the most horrifying, most violent exchanges I’ve ever seen in hockey.” Both men were bloodied, but the fight ended when Maki struck Green in the head, leaving Green with a fractured skull and a brain injury.
According to Kelly, "I could see right away that Green was badly hurt. When he tried to get up, his face was contorted and his legs began to buckle under him. It was dreadful. I almost became physically ill watching him struggle because I knew this was very, very serious. I remember it like it happened yesterday.”
Both men were charged with assault, and the NHL suspended and fined them both—Maki for 30 days and Green for 13 games. Though he missed the rest of that season, Green did return to the game and played for another decade.
9. Zach Redmond's femoral artery is slashed.
After Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Redmond fell during a practice session on February 20, 2013, a teammate accidentally skated over his thigh, cutting his femoral artery. "I didn’t actually feel the cut. I don’t know if I was in shock or what, but the cut itself didn’t hurt," Redmond said. "Then, seeing the blood, that initial shock was like, ‘Whoa!’"
Teammate Anthony Peluso applied pressure to the wound, and Redmond was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent a three-hour surgery to fix the wound. He was skating again six weeks later.
10. Jeremy Roenick has his jaw broken by Derian Hatcher.
In a December 1999 game between the Dallas Stars and the Phoenix Coyotes, Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher hit Coyotes forward Jeremy Roenick high, smashing his face into the glass. Roenick's jaw was dislocated and broken in multiple places, and eight of his teeth were broken.
"I had my jaw wired shut," Roenick said years later. Though the normal healing time for a broken jaw is six weeks, "I actually came back and played 17 days later in the playoffs. I put on a big storm-trooper helmet and played Game 7 of the first round." Hatcher was suspended for seven games.
11. Mark Howe gets impaled by the net.
In a December 27, 1980 game against the New York Islanders, Hartford Whalers forward/defenseman Mark Howe—son of the legendary Gordie Howe—pivoted toward the net as the Islanders were coming in on a 3-on-2 and was bumped by the Islanders John Tonelli. Howe went into the goal, which at that time was designed with a pointed piece of sheet metal in the center that deflected pucks up into the middle of the net, making it easier for a goal judge to spot a goal (you can see the design in this photo). What happened next was nothing short of horrific.
"It all happened in a split second, but Howe knew enough to try to protect his bad back," sportswriter Craig Custance detailed on ESPN.com back in 2011. "So, while sliding on his back, he lifted his legs up so he could absorb the blow with his knees. Instead, the metal jammed five inches into his backside, just inches from his spinal column. ... It slid right through Howe, nearly coming out of his hip."
Teammate Nick Fotiu ran for a stretcher. "I ran. I did a sprint. I just flew, man," he said in 2011. "'Get out of the way!'" The piece of metal, he said, "looked like a sword."
Howe spent just six weeks off the ice—a month of that in and out of hospitals, fighting infections and fevers and the nausea caused by his medication. He later sued the NHL for refusing to change the nets and was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.
12. Donald Brashear gets slashed by Marty McSorley.
Vancouver Canucks left winger Donald Brashear and Boston Bruins forward/defenseman Marty McSorley clashed several times during a particularly chippy game on February 21, 2000. Then, with just three seconds left in the game, McSorley approached Brashear from behind and struck him on the temple with his stick; Brashear fell and lost his helmet, then suffered a seizure on the ice. The hit gave him a grade-3 concussion. "I still get headaches; I still get tired," Brashear said a few months later. "I want to put this thing in the past, but it keeps following me. You never recover 100 percent from a thing like that."
McSorley was suspended and charged with assault; he asserted he hadn't meant to hit Brashear on the head, but on the shoulder, and said that he could barely raise his left shoulder, which limited his control over the stick. Though he was found guilty, he avoided jail time; his suspension was set for a year following the conviction, and he never played in the NHL again. Brashear returned to play before the end of the season.
13. Sebastian Courcelles get his cheek slashed open.
Obviously, gruesome injuries aren't just for the big leagues. During a Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH) game against the Trois Vikings, Sebastian Courcelles, captain of minor-league Thetford Mines Isothermic, was hit in the face by opponent Jean-Michel Bolduc's skate, resulting in a gash so horrific that one of Courcelles's teammates nearly fainted. Courcelles's brother, Simon, "shouted to put pressure on my cheek," Courcelles said. "He then said to call the ambulance ... at that time, I told myself that it must not be pretty." It took 15 stitches to close the wound; Courcelles started playing again a week after the injury wearing a full face mask.
This article was originally published in 2014; it has been updated for 2022.