Masking the mental struggle: Clint Malarchuk’s journey

By John Hollinger

Griffin Reporter

On March 22, 1989 Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk was involved in one of the most horrific accidents in sports history. The former NHL player and coach returned to Buffalo to speak at Canisius College on April 25, 2017 and shared moments about his incident on the ice and beyond. After surviving the gruesome injury, Malarchuk attested that his life has changed completely.

As the scramble for the puck came toward Malarchuk’s net, Steve Tuttle was shoved into the direction of Malarchuk with his trailing foot rising in the air. In that split second, Malarchuk reacted by turning his head, but by doing so, left his neck exposed and the blade of Tuttle’s skate sliced across Malarchuk’s neck, tearing his carotid artery and jugular vein. Within seconds, blood spewed out of his neck and dark red puddled onto the ice. At that moment Malarchuk thought he was going to die.

“Call my mom and tell her I love her,” Malarchuk said to the equipment manager who was at his presence. Malarchuk knew his mother was watching the game on TV and wanted to get off the ice so she wouldn’t have to see him die. Even Mike Robitaille, the color commentator expressed his disgust of what he was witnessing.

“Oh God! Please take the camera off! Oh my God! What happened?!”

The horrific sight caused 11 fans to faint, two suffer heart attacks and three players to vomit right on the ice.

The quick action by his athletic trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, a former Army medic who served in Vietnam, helped save Malarchuk’s life. He was taken to a hospital where doctors operated on him through the night.

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Clint Malarchuk suffered the most gruesome sports injury ever according to Bleacher Report after a skate slashed his neck / Photo: Harry Skull Jr.

Malarchuk lost one-third of the blood in his body from the incident with over 300 stitches across his neck. Doctors say that if the skate had cut just one-fourth of an inch deeper, he would have died immediately on the ice that night.

Malarchuk was released from the hospital the next day. But after staring death in the face, Malarchuk was cleared to play in the Sabres game just 11 days later. He received lots of support for his heroics.

“After the accident, I was a rock star in Buffalo,” Malarchuk said to the crowd of over 300 at Canisius that night. “I was a the man,” he exclaimed.

Malarchuk says that he received so much love and support because his resilience and playing style epitomized what Buffalo was about: hard working, blue collar and grit. He quickly earned love from the fans after this.

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 8.39.40 PM.png

Doctors operated on Malarchuk overnight and he was released
the next day from the hospital with 300 stitches.
/ Photo Credit: Huffington Post

But no one knew what Malarchuk was going through inside, mentally.

“There was no counseling. Nothing. I had nearly died. No one talked about how I was doing mentally,” said Malarchuk.

It was the adrenalin, support and love from the fans that gave him the power to get through that season. “I got through [that season] on the adrenalin, people, fans, coaches, teammates’ support,” said Malarchuk.

However, things started to change dramatically, especially at the beginning of the 1991-92 season.

Malarchuk admitted that he started to have deep depression, panic attacks and was in a bad place mentally. Growing up he had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which he says helped him get into the NHL. He was obsessed about improving little mechanics in his game that he would practice endlessly, driven to make it to the pro ranks. But now his OCD was getting much worse and was doing things he had never done before. He’d wake up at 5a.m. for a 10a.m. practice so that he could have enough time to clean. He’d touch and move things around the house, cleaning constantly. But it was the nightmares that were the worst of them all, according to Malarchuk.

“Every time I started to doze off, boom! [The skate’s blade] Right on my neck,” Malarchuk said. The near-death experience was constantly being replayed in his head every time he tried to sleep. For those next 10 days he did not sleep.

“They torture people that way, you know, to get information from sleep deprivation,” Malarchuk said, expressing how mentally painful something like this
can be.

However, no one knew this was going on with Malarchuk.

The six-inch scar was visibly displayed on his neck, ripe and less than a few years old. But no one saw the mental scars that began to occur. “I was the tough ‘cowboy goalie’; I couldn’t tell them that I was hurt inside.”

After surviving 10 sleepless nights, Malarchuk stumbled upon an idea. He was taking pain killers because he was playing with a broken vertebra at the time. On the back the label read ‘do not take with alcohol, will make you drowsy.’ Well, having not slept for days, Malarchuk thought that the mixture of the two would be a good idea.

“So I took a handful of painkillers and drank a bottle of scotch,” Malarchuk said as if it was no big deal. “My heart stopped [beating],” Malarchuk said as he put his hand over the left side of his chest.

As he awoke in the hospital, he was bombarded with questions. “Clint, was this a suicide attempt? Why would you do this?”

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Clint Malarchuk talks about his injury and mental illness at Canisius College on April 25, 2017 / Photo: Patrick Burke

Malarchuk did not try to commit suicide, well, at least not at this particular moment. The motivation was to try and fall asleep and he told the psychiatrist everything—the sleepless nights, nightmares and all the changes he was going through. That psychiatrist diagnosed him with OCD, depression and anxiety.

As a result, he was prescribed medication and was seeing doctors all while still trying to play in the NHL. He admitted that he wasn’t the same in net and was sent to the minors to play in the IHL for the San Diego Gulls. His coach in San Diego was able to get him to one of the best doctors in the country, who Malarchuk impersonated as a short, cocky doctor. After this new medication his depression, anxiety, and OCD all started to dissipate in weeks.

After his playing career was done, he decided to coach, having stints in the IHL with Las Vegas and Idaho from 1998-2000 and later to NHL’s Florida Panthers for 2002-03. He then ended up in San Antonio in 2004, where he met his wife, Joanie, who was also at Canisius to talk about her experience.

Joanie and her family never dealt with mental illness whatsoever. However, Clint said now that he reflects on his own mental illness problems, he really does believe that his own dad suffered from it. With mental illness running in Clint’s family, Joanie was walking into unfamiliar territory, according to Clint.

“She had no idea of what mental illness even looked like,” said Clint. “And then I started to spiral.”

Joanie went on to reveal how Clint’s drinking habits steadily got worse.

“What was a few beers on the weekend turned into a few beers four, five nights a week. Then it turned into drinking 30 or more beers a day,” said Joanie. He started isolating himself and would stay in the barn all day. Joanie said how she never physically saw Malarchuk’s OCD, such as touching things, cleanliness, etc. but saw a different kind of OCD than she expected.

“His OCD was in his head, his thoughts,” said Joanie as she paused and swallowed. “And his thoughts […] were on me.” She said with watery eyes and a pithed voice. “He’d ask ‘Did I love him enough, why did I love him?’” said Joanie. Clint’s questioning and obsession of whether she loved him would go on for hours until he would pass out on the kitchen table for the night. He would wake up and the drinking would start again.

Joanie expressed her frustrations in trying to help her husband and how at times there was a sense of hopelessness, as if she was being ignored.

“No one would help,” Joanie said with annoyance in her voice. She would go to the emergency room and tell them what her husband was doing and they still would not help. They told her unless he harmed himself or her, there was nothing they could do.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) one out of every four families have a relative that suffers from mental illness. Joanie provided insight on how she tried to help Clint and the immense struggle that she dealt with. Clint said that it is a taboo in today’s society to talk about mental illness. And that is exactly what others told Joanie to do– to stay silent.

“I was told not to tell anyone. Hide it. Which I was. I was hiding it as best as I could,” said Joanie. Clint chimed in, “We hide because of the stigma with mental illness, the embarrassment, people are going to think you’re crazy.” But when we are silent, what can be done?

Although Malarchuk’s athletic trainer, Jim Pizzutelli saved his life that night, he along with others on the medical staff did not approach Malarchuk to check on how he was doing mentally.

The same goes for many others in the profession according to Canisius College Head Athletic Trainer, Andy Smith. “I can help you with your injury and refer you to the right people, but after that it’s pretty much just ‘have a good life,’” Smith said brushing his hands off, expressing how once the deed is done the athlete is basically on his own. Smith also admitted that it is difficult for someone in his role to initiate checking in with a player about depression.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to open that door,” Smith said. “By opening that door, you’re walking into a black cloud with that person and it’s difficult to do that.” Smith also said that he could understand why an injured player can succumb to mental illness so easily.

“You have to tell a player to stop doing what they love the most,” said Smith. “And that can be extremely hard for an athlete. For a lot of them it’s like you’re taking away their joy, their world.”

However, Malarchuk said that no one knew what he was going through mentally after the injury. And still, it was kept secretly with him and his family as Joanie was told not to tell anyone, despite the help she wanted to give. And as it continued, Joanie continued to witness Clint’s addiction get worse. His injury was in 1989 and Joanie met Clint in 2004, yet the mental problems still loomed. Clint also revealed his addiction problem.

“There is a huge correlation between mental illness and addiction,” said Clint. “And my addiction was alcohol.” Clint admitted that alcohol was his medication for his depression and anxiousness.

Clint was living at his ranch in Nevada when on Feb. 10, 2008 when yet another horrific accident on the ice happened. Richard Zednik, a player for the Florida Panthers suffered a similar neck injury that Malarchuk had, as the blade of an ice skate slashed his neck, tearing his external carotid. Coincidentally, they happened to be playing against the Sabres that night and in Buffalo—the city where Malarchuk nearly died on the ice. With the Buffalo media all over this story and contacting him about it, Clint started to relive the nightmares and his depression started to overwhelm him even more.

Months after Zednik’s injury, on Oct. 7, 2008, Clint was laying by the side of his barn at his ranch “extremely depressed,” Clint said with emphasis. He was drinking too. When Joanie walked by he was yelling again about his problems and the mental pains. He also had a rifle, meant for shooting rabbits and small animals at the ranch. His face was wet from the sweat and tears.

“I don’t want to live in my head anymore,” said Clint, referring to his mental aches. He pulled the gun up underneath his chin, pointing up and fired. The bullet traveled through his jaw, tongue, several teeth, roof of his mouth, nasal cavity and into his skull, just millimeters from his brain. Joanie dialed 9-1-1.

The bullet dislodged in his head was a .22 short caliber bullet, small and meant for hunting rabbits and small animals. Had it been a normal .22 caliber bullet the chances of dying at that moment would have been much more likely. First an ice skate to the neck, now a bullet to the head – Clint Malarchuk survived yet again. As Clint talked about the suicide attempt his eyes became watery. Joanie’s too.

“I did that,” pointing at the screen which showed an x-ray of his skull. “I pulled the trigger,” Clint said as emotion started to take over.

Joanie went on, “You think to yourself that ‘that happens in the world, but it doesn’t happen to you, it can’t happen to you,’” Joanie said when referring to the suicide attempt she witnessed. Clint was put on suicide watch as a result. He was put in a dual diagnosis mental center that he referred to as “Alcatraz,” Clint said this was perfect for him because he had a dual problem: mental illness accompanied with addiction. However, when they told him he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he didn’t want to accept it.

“I was so insulted,” Clint exclaimed. He was allowed to walk out and leave this mental center anytime he wanted. But Joanie received help from the NHLPA and the NHL, who had doctors that counseled her through the process of how to deal with Clint. In essence, they told him that if he didn’t get better that no team in the NHL would want him. And because of that, he stayed to get more help in rehab.

“He [Clint] would tell me constantly ‘you’re ruining my life Joanie, you’re the worst thing ever, you’re wrecking my life’ and I said ‘good point, I’ll wreck your life, but at least you’ll have a life, and you’ll be alive,’” said Joanie with watery eyes.

After a few months rehab, Clint began to process that he had PTSD. It was acceptance of the illness that really helped Malarchuk, which he says doesn’t happen enough.

“We don’t process trauma, that’s the problem,” said Clint.

Joanie went to seek therapy for herself as well. At therapy, she was with unfamiliar people and they all revealed what their husbands said to them. Their responses shocked Joanie. They weren’t just surprisingly similar; it was the exact same.

“Word for word. It was almost like they had a handbook of all the things Clint would say to me,” Joanie said. She said that that feeling of taking everything personally just went away because all of these people were going through the exact same situation as her. This is where she realized that she was not alone.

“This helped me really separate the two: this is the disease talking…  and this is Clint,” Joanie said. When she was able to realize this through her time at therapy, she was able to cope with Clint more effectively. “She was able to realize

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 8.42.35 PM.png

Clint and Joanie Malarchuk talk at Canisius College / Photo: John Hollinger

every time that when I said ‘you’re ruining my life’ that she was able to differentiate that this was the
disease talking,” said Clint.

Joanie quickly added, “It’s not him attacking me, it’s the disease attacking what’s ever happening in his life.”

Clint and Joanie have become much more open about mental illness, their feelings, and struggles that they’ve gone through. As a result, Clint published a book in 2014 about his journey titled “A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.” The Canadian version is titled “The Crazy Game: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond.”

One goal that Clint said he’d like to do by writing this book and telling his story was that he’d save at least one life.

“I’m very passionate about saving one life, anyone,” said Clint who also shares his story across the country by speaking and doing book signing events. At a book signing in Edmonton there was a college-aged kid that Malarchuk distinctly remembers. He was there for a journalism project and after talking with Clint, he waited for hours until everyone was done getting signatures and conversing with him. Finally, when everyone was gone, the college kid went up to Clint and said, “Clint, you saved my life.” He had left a suicide note that his dad found. He then was given Malarchuk’s book and he said it helped him immensely.

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Malarchuk (Left) talks with Canisius students / Photo: Patrick Burke

“Holy crap, I saved a life,” Clint said to the crowd at Canisius.

It is bringing the conversation to the surface that Malarchuk says is important and should be emphasized more. Canisius College senior Dilpreet Kaur helped coordinate to bring in the Malarchuks to speak to promote the mental health initiative for the Public Health Committee at Canisius.  

“Clint was extremely humble and very jovial. He never once exerted his dominance as a celebrity,” said Kaur. She went on to add, “I think we are lacking the appropriate knowledge or respect for those with mental illness. I believe it is still looked down upon in society and people who have such social issues are often subjected to ridicule.”

Joanie and Clint both talked about their lives moving forward as well, and the difficulties that still exist. “It seems like the better he gets, the harder it gets for me… Putting your own life aside [and] helping him,” said Joanie. “Where is the help for me? Where does it stop? I don’t think it ever stops. I think you just get better at it,” Joanie said.

Clint added, “More people aren’t getting mental illness, more people are admitting that they have it.” The Malarchuks continued to tell the attendees to not be ashamed about talking about mental illness, to keep the conversation going and to seek help.

When the skate slashed across Malarchuk’s neck, his first instinct was to remove his mask immediately, watching blood spew out. But there is a different kind of mask that Malarchuk urges everyone to remove– the one that covers our mental struggle. And as that mask is removed– revealing the mental pains, aches, depression, trauma, or anything else going on spew out in front of you– visible for others to see– opportunity for hope emerges. That help from others arises once that struggle is shared according to Malarchuk. Clint masked his own mental pains. The result was a bullet being dislodged in his skull. Clint says that does not have to be you.

“Don’t do what I did,” said Clint with his skull’s x-ray still on the screen.  He also added that it is not about being courageous, but being vulnerable, and allowing others to know.

Revealing your own problems will allow help to come according to Malarchuk. It is also that next step of triumph, that sense of hope that allowed Malarchuk to take it one step further and impact others. He admitted his life had many pitfalls, but by revealing them, he gave hope to others that they are not alone. Just like that kid in Edmonton.

“You are not alone,” said Malarchuk. “You could save a life… I did.”


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