A frightening moment for Flyers prospect Stolarz

Anthony Stolarz, from Jackson, N.J., was picked in the second round of the 2012 NHL draft. He plays junior hockey in Ontario.
Anthony Stolarz, from Jackson, N.J., was picked in the second round of the 2012 NHL draft. He plays junior hockey in Ontario. (Getty)
Posted: January 23, 2014

One player collided with Anthony Stolarz, right there in the goal crease, and then another, and Doug Stacey kept his eyes on that tangle because, amid the skate blades and the sticks and the fragile body parts, anything might happen. Anything did.

This was Friday night in southwestern Ontario, a junior-hockey game between the London Knights and the Saginaw Spirit. Stolarz - 19 years old and one of the Flyers' top goaltending prospects - was in net for London. Stacey has been a physical therapist and ice-hockey trainer for 20 years, including 10 with the Knights. He works for Hockey Canada. He's been to four Olympics. He's good at his job. His training tells him to pay attention whenever a player falls to the ice during a game. There might be an injury, and he might be needed.

So he saw Stolarz tumble like a bowling pin, part of the kind of pileup that happens thousands of times a year at all levels of hockey. But this time, Stacey really didn't have to see anything to know something was wrong. From the Knights' bench, he could hear Anthony Stolarz scream.

Stolarz's path to the Flyers organization was an unusual one. He grew up in Jackson, N.J., and wanted to earn a Division I scholarship as a goalie, except that he tried out for two junior teams and was cut from both. He then attended an open tryout in Albany, N.Y., for the North American Hockey League, an apprenticeship for teenagers who have aspirations of playing in college or the pros. The audition went so well that he latched on with one of the league's franchises: the Corpus Christi Ice Rays, on the southeast coast of Texas.

"At first, I'd never heard of Corpus Christi," he said in an interview last year. "But I heard it was on the beach, so why not? Why not go down there and give it a shot?"

He finished high school in Texas and played 50 games for the Ice Rays, attracting the interest of Division I recruiters and NHL scouts, including the Flyers' Neil Little. Stolarz accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Nebraska Omaha, but the Flyers were still intrigued.

The competition that Stolarz had faced in the NAHL wasn't the caliber of, say, Canada's elite junior leagues, but he fit the physical profile of the modern NHL goaltender: tall and athletic, 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, skinny as a pole, with time to add weight and muscle. The Flyers, undeterred by Stolarz's unorthodox pedigree or their star-crossed history with goaltenders, selected him in the second round of the 2012 NHL draft.

"From a development standpoint, you've got to trust your people," Chris Pryor, the Flyers' director of scouting, said after the draft. "Who knows what this kid's going to be like?"

Stolarz left college last January, deciding instead to play major-junior hockey, and Friday's was his 50th regular-season game for London. He'd gone 34-7-4 with four shutouts, a 2.46 goals-against average, and a .923 save percentage. So far, he had validated the Flyers' belief that he could someday develop into an elite NHL goaltender.

But now he was belly-down in his crease, a laceration penciling down his lower left leg where a Saginaw player's skate had sliced him, and the warm blood was congealing on the ice around him in Rorschach-like splotches, and Stacey was leaning over him, holding a towel to the leg, unsure yet of the severity of the injury. How deep into the tissue was the laceration? Had the skate blade severed any nerves?

"Anthony, what happened?" Stacey asked, even though he already knew. "What happened?" is always the first thing Stacey says to a player who's bleeding. It gets the player thinking, focuses his mind, calms him down, and slows the full-throttle pumping of the heart.

"I don't know," Stolarz said. "It happened so fast."

The blood, Stacey noticed, was a rich, deep red, and it was not squirting from Stolarz's leg. That meant it was low-oxygen, venous blood. The skate hadn't cut an artery. "That, right off, made me feel good," Stacey said. The assistant trainer, the team doctor, and two equipment managers shuffled onto the ice to help him. They ripped apart the Velcro straps that affixed Stolarz's goalie pad to his leg, and Stacey pressed the two sides of the laceration together to stem the bleeding.

Stolarz told them he could feel his left foot and wiggle his toes. Stacey and the equipment managers lifted him onto a stretcher, and a plastic surgeon - who was at the game because he was both a Knights season-ticket holder and the father of a team employee - rode with Stolarz in an ambulance to a nearby hospital. The wound required 55 stitches. Stolarz is already home from the hospital. He could be back in the Knights lineup within six weeks.

It's a remarkable thing, how little distance can separate the humdrum and the dangerous in sports. Anthony Stolarz was part of a play that happens in hockey all the time, and but for another inch, his career could have ended after it had barely begun. You never know. Anything can happen. It all happens so fast. That's why Doug Stacey always watches. In a way, isn't that why all of us do?


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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