Richard Zedník: The Cut-Throat Comeback Kid

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For the casual fan, the rough and tumble of ice hockey is a considerable attraction. Fights, big hits and injuries are commonplace, blood being spilt on the ice is not an uncommon sight, and team doctors are some of the busiest in sports. In 2008, a moment was created that was horrific enough to be burned into the memory of all who witnessed it; and a matter of seconds and hundreds of stitches later, the name of Richard Zedník was set in stone.

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Making a Name for Yourself

Some teams have players whose names are discussed long after their tenure on the ice is over. Mario Lemieux is a hot topic of conversation for fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins to this day. Edmonton Oilers and L.A. Kings fans still share a word, or 99, on Wayne Gretzky. However, not all players gain their fame or infamy due to their goal scoring prowess, assist ability or fiery mentality. Some are remembered for singular moments in their career, outside of what they can do on the ice. Despite his short stint at the Florida Panthers, Richard Zedník’s name still echoes around the halls of the BB&T Centre. For the unlucky 18,690 spectators who were there in Buffalo on 10th February 2008, his name will be remembered forever.

To go back to the beginning, Richard Zedník was born on the 6th January 1976 in Banska Bystrica, Czechoslovakia. He began his professional playing career in the 1992-93 season at the age of 16, at Hockey Club ’05 Banská Bystrica in the Slovakian second division. Zedník only stayed in the Slovakian division for two seasons, scoring three goals and six assists over his 25 game stint at the club. At 18, he was part of the 1994 NHL draft and was chosen in the 10th round (249th overall) by the Washington Capitals. He was immediately sent to Portland, Oregon, to begin training and playing for the Capitals’ minor league affiliate team, the Portland Winterhawks, before being sent to the Portland Pirates, another minor league affiliate of the Capitals, this time in Portland, Maine. Zedník played only one game in Washington during the 1995-96 season, spending the remainder of his time in the minor leagues before breaking into the NHL properly in the 1996-97 season. He never returned to the minor leagues.

Moving Through the League

Following an initial five year stint with the Washington Capitals, Zedník had tallied up a more-than-acceptable 47 goals and 34 assists over 195 games, making the playoffs twice. During the 2000-01 season, Zedník was traded to the Montreal Canadiens along with two other players. It was during this time in Montreal that he found, arguably, his greatest form and most success. The Slovak racked up an impressive 98 goals and 85 assists through 322 games, with three playoff runs but ultimately no Stanley Cup to show for it. 

A brief half-season back at Washington followed in 2006 before he was traded once again. This time, he joined the New York Islanders in February of 2007 on a short-term contract for the remainder of the season. Once Zedník’s contract expired, he entered free agency and signed with the Florida Panthers before the end of the summer offseason. And so, 11 years and four teams later, Zedník landed at the team with whom he would enter the history books as the player who masses of people watched almost lose his life on the ice. 


A Pain in the Neck 

Zedník’s tenure as a Panther was short-lived, only staying for two seasons in South Florida. His 2007-08 season was the shorter of the two, ending his season five months early with a horrific injury suffered in a game on 10th February. The Florida Panthers were on the road in Buffalo, New York, for a regular-season game against the Buffalo Sabres. Both the Panthers and the Sabres were set for low-to-mid table finishes, leading to a relatively low stakes competition on the ice. The game had been fiercely contested, with the Panthers taking an early advantage at the first intermission before Buffalo raced to lead 3-1. The Panthers grabbed a second goal late in the second before drawing level at 3-3 early on in the 3rd period, only to have Buffalo score again on the power play to regain their lead. And in an instant, as the pressure rose and the play intensified, disaster struck.

Around halfway into the 3rd, Florida Panthers legend and Center player Olli Jokinen was tangled up in a challenge with Sabres forward Clarke MacArthur and was upended to the point that Jokinen’s legs were flung into the air, unfortunately into the path of onrushing teammate Richard Zedník. Jokinen’s skate sliced through Zedník’s carotid artery, causing him to immediately drop his gloves, grab his throat and hurry to the bench. From the amount of blood spilt on the ice, it was clear to Zedník and the onlooking fans and players how severe the injury was. In his first interview since the incident, he explained, “I felt like somebody stabbed me, I knew exactly what happened and I knew exactly what I had to do. When I got to the bench, I knew it was an artery, the way the blood was going. I don’t want to think about it, but I was in pretty bad shape.” As he was receiving treatment, his mind went to his four-year-old daughter, “I remember thinking, ‘Am I going to see her grow up?’ “After a discussion about the possible suspension of the game, it was decided that the game would continue after a 20-minute break to clean the blood from the ice. The Panthers would ultimately lose 5-3. 

Meanwhile, Zedník was rushed to Buffalo General hospital to receive life-saving surgery. Surgeons who worked to repair the artery commented that the artery had been sliced into rather than severed completely, which would have required more extensive surgery and carried a greater risk of loss of life. Despite the gruesome-looking injury and five units of blood lost, surgeons never considered Zedník’s life to be at great risk and, once he regained consciousness, showed no signs of brain damage. “So far, he looks very good. He’s awake, oriented, He remembers what happened last night”, said attending surgeon Sonya Noor. When asked what factors played into the lack of severe damage, Noor replied simply, “Luck.” Just over a week later, Zedník was discharged and flew back to Florida the following day. 

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The Comeback is Stronger than the Setback

The injury ended Zedník’s season. His recovery would take around eight weeks which would have run into April, and with the season ending a matter of days later, he was rested to recover over the offseason. Despite the accident, he would not be discouraged from getting back onto the ice, reportedly saying that he “can’t wait to get back and be with the guys” a matter of days after being discharged from hospital. When October rolled around, Zedník was ready to begin the season with his Panthers teammates at the opening game away to the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite not registering any goals or assists, he managed over 16 minutes of time on the ice. Rather impressive for a man with a recently healed hole in his neck. The season that followed was semi-productive for his last as a Panther, scoring 17 goals and 16 assists over 70 games. His contract would expire at the end of the season, leaving him free to end his long and illustrious NHL career and join Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. Zedník’s contract with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl was terminated “by mutual agreement” in the summer of 2010. Zedník returned to play two games with HC 05 Banská Bystrica before signing a contract with AIK IF, which expired after the 2010–11 season. With that contract expiration, the professional hockey career of Richard Zedník was over. 

Zedník struggled for a while to process the accident, physically he had recovered, but the mental scarring would take much longer to heal. Despite video of the incident earning over 2.1 million views, Zedník was only ever one of those. “At first when I was in the Buffalo hospital, I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to watch. I was like still kind of in shock. But then when I got back to Florida … I was curious, exactly, how the skate came to the neck,” he said. “I watched it once. That’s enough.” He even struggled to talk about the accident in any capacity at the time of his recovery, finding himself unable to discuss the incident with retired Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk, whose neck was slashed in a similar fashion almost two decades prior. Malarchuk recovered but later struggled with nightmares and flashbacks. He had tried to get a message to Zednik through the Panthers’ front office, but Zednik said he’d rather not discuss the injury. “I don’t think it’s something I want to talk about,” he said. “I want to focus on my career. I just think I’ll be OK.” 

Both accidents have prompted discussions around whether NHL players should be required to wear neck guards to prevent future injury, but to-date there is still no change in the rules regarding neck guard requirements. One change that did come about from Zedník’s accident was that all team doctors must be trained in trauma care and must sit behind the home team bench at every game. Zedník’s career may not have been the most decorated, but as a player, he will live long in the memory of anyone unfortunate enough to have seen the freak accident that may have cost a beloved player his career or even his life.