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34 Years Ago Today: Remembering the Day Clint Malarchuk Almost Lost His Life Playing Hockey

When most hockey fans think of former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, an image of him getting his throat slashed by an errant skate comes to mind. On that unshakeable March 22, 1989, Malarchuk needed 300 stitches to close a jugular wound that caused audience members to faint and two people to suffer heart attacks.

The remarkable thing about that horrifying incident was that Malarchuk appeared to recover quickly.
He even joked about it a few days later in a radio interview with fellow goalie Gerry Cheevers, comparing the situation to slaughtering cattle and saying, “I was ready to moo out there.”

After that incident, Malarchuk barely missed a week of game time as the Buffalo Sabres’ goalie, making him arguably Exhibit A on why hockey players are tough at least on the outside.

“Coming back as quick as I did, I became a cult hero,” Malarchuk, sipping coffee, dipping chew, says the other day. “It was like, ‘Holy crap, this guy had his head cut off almost, and he’s back playing.’ I became a pretty good celebrity in that town. I basked in that, basked in my courage, basked in my cowboy mentality. I thought everybody back home, my cowboy buddies, would all be pretty proud of me.

“I never thought about trauma or anything like that. Never ever.”

Never thinking about the trauma – or even truly addressing it – could have influenced what was the other darkest period in Malarchuk’s life. That second moment did not occur as a result of someone else’s poorly placed skate; rather, it occurred as a result of Malarchuk’s own actions on October 7, 2008. Malarchuk put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger while his wife was watching during a “hunting mishap.”

Malarchuk claimed it wasn’t a suicide attempt because he didn’t realize the gun was loaded, but the message was clear in any case.

“I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, I just shot myself in the head,’ ” says Malarchuk. “It wasn’t like a premeditated suicide. It was stupid. I actually thought the gun wasn’t loaded. It was impulsive. Crazy, irrational. Mind spinning a hundred miles an hour. It wasn’t like I left a note. I call it an accident.”

Malarchuk underwent “heavy, heavy therapy” following his near-death experience on the ice, which he probably should have done after nearly dying on the ice. That’s not to say he didn’t try to get better in the years between those two incidents – he had “15 good years” after getting help, including Zoloft – but he didn’t really address the issue specifically. Malarchuk began to improve after being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the throat-slashing incident.

“I thought it was only people in war who had that,” says Malarchuk. “When they come back, some of them are basket cases, some are homeless people, alcoholics, drug addicts. Why? Because they never got help.

“We went through some exercises where I had to relive (the neck injury). Cry. Be scared. Shake. I never did that (in 1989). The words ‘counsel’ or ‘psychology’ . . . never came up. I’m not blaming anybody. It never even crossed my mind.”

Even in the midst of these crises, Malarchuk was establishing a career as a goalie coach (including time with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Former Atlanta Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley helped him along the way, including a stint as goalie coach for the Thrashers in 2010-11 followed by another stint with the Calgary Flames as goalie coach from 2011-2014.

Following his playing career, Malarchuk moved to a ranch near Carson City, Nevada (later Gardnerville, Nevada), where he and his wife raised three children. He became a veterinary technician in the mid-2000s and now works as a horse dentist from his ranch.

Malarchuk earned the nickname “the Cowboy Goalie” in hockey because he was active in the Calgary, Alberta-area rodeo scene during the off-season. While playing for the Washington Capitals, he was photographed riding bareback in a front-page newspaper photo, and he was later given horses as a contractual bonus with the Las Vegas Thunder. When he returned to play for the Buffalo Sabres, he credited his toughness to his cowboy upbringing.

In November 2014, Malarchuk published his autobiography, The Crazy Game.
The book was published in the United States under the title: A Matter of Inches—How I Survived In The Crease And Beyond. The book was on the Toronto Star bestsellers list until January of 2015 and became a documentary film.

Igor Burdetskiy

Igor Burdetskiy

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & CEO at Hooked on Hockey Magazine
I grew up playing Ball and Roller Hockey day and night somewhat religiously throughout elementary and middle school. The two don't compare though when I lace up the skates and hit the ice. I live and breathe hockey beyond the perspective of "it's just a game" and I will gladly talk hockey for hours with anyone. Hockey is more than just a lifestyle, it's a culture of passionate people who make memories every time the puck is dropped. Hockey has not only helped me get through some of the hardest times in life but has created some of the best memories to date. Want to talk hockey with me? Shoot me an email: iburdetskiy@hookedonhockey.com and let's talk some hockey!
Igor Burdetskiy
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