When most hockey fans think of former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, there’s that indelible (and unsettling) image of him getting his throat slashed by an errant skate. Malarchuk needed 300 stitches to close up a jugular wound that left audience members fainting and gave two people heart attacks on that unshakeable day on March 22, 1989.
Yet the remarkable thing about that horrifying incident was that Malarchuk seemingly bounced right back from that incident. He even managed to joke around about that incident during a radio interview with fellow goalie Gerry Cheevers just a few days later, comparing the moment to slaughtering cattle by saying “I was ready to moo out there.”
Malarchuk barely missed a week of game time as the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie after that incident, making him arguably Exhibit A on why hockey players are tough. At least on the outside, that is.
“Coming back as quick as I did, I became a cult hero,” Malarchuk, sipping coffee, dipping chew, says the other day. “It was like, ‘Holy crap, this guy had his head cut off almost, and he’s back playing.’ I became a pretty good celebrity in that town. I basked in that, basked in my courage, basked in my cowboy mentality. I thought everybody back home, my cowboy buddies, would all be pretty proud of me.
“I never thought about trauma or anything like that. Never ever.”
Never thinking about the trauma – or at least truly addressing it – might have had an impact on what was the other darkest moment in Malarchuk’s life. That second moment didn’t take place because of someone else’s imperfectly placed skate; instead it was the result of Malarchuk’s own actions on October 7, 2008. During what was labeled a “hunting mishap,” Malarchuk put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger while his wife was watching.
Malarchuk claimed it wasn’t really a suicide attempt as he didn’t realize the gun was loaded, but the message seemed clear either way.
“I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, I just shot myself in the head,’ ” says Malarchuk. “It wasn’t like a premeditated suicide. It was stupid. I actually thought the gun wasn’t loaded. It was impulsive. Crazy, irrational. Mind spinning a hundred miles an hour. It wasn’t like I left a note. I call it an accident.”
After that near-death experience, Malarchuk underwent something he probably should have experienced after he nearly died on the ice: “heavy, heavy therapy.” That’s not to say he didn’t try to get better in the years between those two incidents – he experienced “15 good years” after finding some help, including the use of Zoloft – but he didn’t really address the issue specifically. Malarchuk started to make progress once he was treated for post-traumatic stress related to that throat-slashing catastrophe.
“I thought it was only people in war who had that,” says Malarchuk. “When they come back, some of them are basket cases, some are homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts. Why? Because they never got help.
“We went through some exercises where I had to relive (the neck injury). Cry. Be scared. Shake. I never did that (in 1989). The words ‘counsel’ or ‘psychology’ . . . never came up. I’m not blaming anybody. It never even crossed my mind.”
Even amid these crises, Malarchuk was building up a career as a goalie coach (including time with the Columbus Blue Jackets, as you can see in this post’s main photo). Former Atlanta Thrashers GM Rick Dudley gave him opportunities along the way, including a role as goalie coach for the Thrashers in 2010-11. Malarchuk’s potentially tragic story could turn inspiring as he goes on to his next role as the Calgary Flames’ goalie coach in 2011-12.
“I’m excited — super-excited about this job,” he says. “It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in a long time. To be a coach with the Flames? Pretty cool.
“I’m 100 per cent mentally. I do have to take medication and I’m not ashamed to say that. And I have a healthy lifestyle.”