'Extremely scary' skate cut injuries have NHLers thinking twice
Recent skate cut injuries suffered by Evander Kane and Brendan Smith serve as a reminder of how dangerous hockey can be. Photo by Jason Behnken/AP.

TORONTO — Two exposed wrists, two frightening skate cuts.

Not even two hours between them.

One sent Evander Kane to the operating room in an ambulance on Nov. 8 and will cost him most of this NHL regular season. The other sent a serious scare through Brendan Smith, but only cost him a couple shifts.

The difference?

His opponent’s blade sliced through at an angle that missed his tendons and radial artery by a hair. Maybe less.

“I caught a huge break. My doctor told me, ‘There’s somebody looking after you,'" Smith said Thursday. “That’s never something you want to hear from your doctor.”

The veteran New Jersey Devils defenceman has the scar to prove it. He only recently had the stitches removed from the inside of his left wrist and the fused tissue left behind traces of the direction of a skate blade that started across the wrist before jutting up horizontally towards the bottom of his palm.

You don’t need to be a doctor to understand his good fortune when you see that scar.

New Jersey's Brendan Smith, right, didn't even have to miss a game despite suffering a scary cut from an opponent's skate blade this month. Photo by Jason Franson/CP.

“Obviously it just missed the tendon,” Smith said. “It’s actually kind of nuts how close it is here. It went up instead of sideways, so … ”

In the space of that unfinished sentence is where we find the most uncomfortable part of a sport literally played on a knife's edge. The possibility of serious or even catastrophic injury is built into every hockey game at every level.

The risks are arguably greatest in the NHL because of the speed and size of the players and how forcefully they collide. Most of them stand on skate blades that Smith compares to a samurai sword because of how sharp they are.

Yet the vast majority of them don’t wear proper protection — even though it’s readily available.

The NHL has approved four variations of a cut-proof wrist sleeve that’s not yet been widely adopted, although the number of new users has ticked up since the high-profile incident involving Kane. The Oilers forward suffered a deep cut down to the bone when his right wrist was accidentally stepped on by an opponent.

That helped prompt a discussion during the general managers’ meeting earlier this week about potentially mandating wrist sleeves for all new players entering the league, similar to how visors were grandfathered in starting with the 2013-14 season.

The choice is ridiculously easy when you’ve had a near-miss like Smith did. He played more than 600 NHL games without a protective sleeve but has no intention of going back after getting a reminder of how easily things can go wrong.

“I’m kind of now on ‘Team Cut-Proof,'" he said. “I don’t think you can make any of that mandatory, but I think it has to be highly pushed ... It’s an adjustment, but it’s something that I don’t even really think about because I know what it’s doing for me.”

The sleeve he’s started using is made from the same material British prison guards wear for protection. It’s surprisingly light and 100% cut-proof.

Unfortunately, wide-scale shifts only tend to come after a problem becomes too serious to ignore.

Take cut-resistant socks, for example.

They’re now worn by a high percentage of NHLers and that trend can be directly traced to nearly a decade ago where Erik Karlsson, Dave Bolland and others had their Achilles tendons severed.

In recent years, we’ve started seeing more wrist lacerations. Ilya Mikheyev suffered a particularly damaging and ugly one in December 2019 while playing for the Maple Leafs.

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Now we’ve had two more on the same night just this month — producing vastly different outcomes.

Kane was taken immediately into surgery at a Tampa Bay hospital, where they had to use part of a vein from a different area of his arm to reattach the tendon in his wrist. He’s been given a three-to-four-month recovery timeline, although it’s likely to take much longer than that before the Edmonton Oilers winger feels like his old self. 

“I knew I was in some trouble,” Kane told reporters of the incident. “I’ve never seen that much blood before.”

As for Smith, it was a pretty innocuous play where he got tangled with Calgary’s Brett Ritchie along the boards. Ritchie’s skate went right through Smith's glove.

That could easily have sent him to the trainer’s room for months and denied him the chance to return home to play in front of his parents at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night, where the Devils beat the Leafs in overtime for their 11th straight win.

“It was one of the scariest moments ever because you know it’s not good, you just don’t know how bad,” Smtih said. “You look and you see like white — you see all the tendons — it’s not an ideal situation.

“That moment was extremely scary for myself and for my family and I don’t want other people to go through that.”

Or something much worse.

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