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

Updated: February 12, 2008, 6:37 PM ET
Associated Press

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.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press