<
>

Panthers return to ice, reflect as Zednik upgraded to good condition

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- With minds still occupied by teammate
Richard Zednik's gruesome neck injury, the Florida Panthers
returned to practice Tuesday morning seeking to regain a needed
sense of normalcy.

Zednik remained hospitalized 1,350 miles away in Buffalo, where
his condition was upgraded to good on Tuesday at Buffalo General Hospital. By late in the afternoon, he was moved out of the intensive care unit. The Panthers are hoping he will be able to travel home to South Florida this weekend.

Zednik isn't believed to have suffered any long-term brain or
nerve damage, and one surgeon described him as "very lucky."

"It's a sign of how good medicine can be and how good medical
people can be," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said Tuesday as the
team skated for the first time since the accident, which became the
NHL's dominant topic.

Zednik, 32, was critically injured Sunday night in the third period
of the game against the Sabres in Buffalo. Teammate Olli Jokinen was upended and his
razor-sharp skate blade pierced Zednik's neck, opening a deep gash
that stopped just shy of his jugular vein.

A significant amount of blood immediately began pouring from the
1½-inch wound, leaving a wide, ghastly red trail on the ice as
Zednik skated to the Panthers' bench, desperate for help. His
carotid artery -- which pumps blood to the brain -- was cut, and
emergency surgery that night at Buffalo General probably
saved his life.

Zednik never lost consciousness. At one point, he actually complained that
Sabres orthopedic surgeon Dr. Les Bisson was applying too much
pressure to his neck in an effort to stop the bleeding.

"Shows how tough the guy is," Jokinen said. "He was able to
skate to the bench, with the cut in his throat, losing blood like
that. It was pretty amazing, you know?"

As Zednik recovers, so do the Panthers. They held a team meeting, then hit the practice ice for 60 minutes -- still somber and shaken, yet somewhat uplifted by
the continued good reports about their teammate.

"We've got 24 games to go,'' Jokinen said. "If we do our jobs,
there is a possibility Richard's going to play with us and join the
team in the playoffs. The doctors say six to eight weeks ...
there's a possibility he could play this year. So every game now,
it's going to be big, big for us.''

The chance of Zednik playing again this season is a long shot, however. Doctors in Buffalo have already told him next year is the realistic return target, and on Tuesday, Dr. Sonya Noor -- who operated on the forward Sunday night -- said she's recommending he not resume strenuous activity for three months.

Zednik has a photo of his 4-year-old daughter at his hospital bedside, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has phoned to check on Zednik's condition and progress.

"He is awake and in good spirits," Noor said. "He has minimal neck swelling, or discomfort. He is speaking quite well. His voice is not hoarse. He's hungry. He wanted eggs for breakfast."

Noor said Zednik will be asked to sit up and walk a few steps over the next couple of days, and if he can do those things, a discharge plan will be discussed.

Still, the notion of a return this season just might be enough for the
playoff-starved Panthers to have some hope.

"We have to set it aside now and play hockey," said Florida
defenseman Jassen Cullimore, who helped Zednik off the ice.
"That's what we do."

As he helped Zednik leave the ice, Cullimore didn't fully
understand the magnitude of the moment. Then he looked down, and the shock hit him.

"I had blood splattered all over my shirt and my hands and
everything,'' Cullimore said. "It's quite a shocking experience to
see that much blood, and if I felt that way, I can just imagine how
Richard felt.''

By the time he reached the hospital, Zednik needed five units
(roughly five pints) of blood, a figure that suggests one-third of
the blood in his body gushed from the wound before bleeding could
be controlled.

Zednik, who was cooperative and never lost consciousness on his
way to surgery, had several things going for him.

Doctors were astonished the skate blade did not hit any other
arteries or veins, including the jugular, or cause any major nerve
damage. It also helped that the artery was not entirely severed --
"It was hanging by a thread," Noor said. That lessened the time
it took for the carotid to be clamped as it was reattached, and
decreased the chances of brain damage.

"Luck," was a factor, according to Noor. "He might have some
hoarseness and that's about it at this point."

A 12-year veteran, Zednik had 15 goals and 11 assists in 54
games this season, his first with the Panthers, and was clearly
playing his best hockey of the season.

He didn't manage a single point over 16 games -- spanning 361
shifts and 4 hours, 32 minutes of on-ice time -- between Dec. 28 and
Feb. 1. But he had six goals and three assists in the four games
that preceded Sunday's game in Buffalo, giving the Panthers a clear
boost as the team tries to make the playoffs for the first time
since 2000.

The Panthers entered Tuesday in fourth place in the Southeast
Division, two points behind Washington for first place and the No.
3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Montreal visits
Florida on Wednesday night, and forward Rob Globke was summoned from
the Panthers' American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester to fill
Zednik's roster spot. He arrived in South Florida in time to make the Panthers' practice.