Flyer Eric Wellwood's near-death experience

ASSOCIATED PRESS Eric Wellwood might never play hockey again, but feels fortunate to be alive.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Eric Wellwood might never play hockey again, but feels fortunate to be alive.
Posted: January 24, 2014

WITNESS TO more than 1,200 professional hockey games, former Flyers goaltender Brian Boucher thought he'd seen everything.

A routine Sunday night Phantoms game in Bridgeport, Conn., last April left the 14-year veteran rattled - with an image that won't soon leave him.

The Phantoms were on the penalty kill. Boucher heard a crash on the boards. Forward Jason Akeson was sprung on a breakaway.

Then, Boucher watched Eric Wellwood hobble by the bench - with the help of teammates Jon Sim and Rob Bordson - in a panicked attempt to get to the locker room. Phantoms trainer Greg Lowden was running behind them, all while Akeson was still on a breakaway.

"There was this red trail that followed behind him," Boucher said. "Blood was just pouring out of the bottom of Wellwood's skate. It was unbelievable."

The date was April 7, 2013. Play was halted; Akeson stopped mid-breakaway. Wellwood hurried off the ice. There was no time to waste. His skate was already full of blood.

Chasing current Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter on the penalty kill, Wellwood lost an edge and his footing and awkwardly fell into the boards. His own left skate dug into his right ankle, slicing through four tendons, multiple nerve endings and the posterior tibial artery in his right leg. He was minutes away from exsanguination, blood loss that could have caused his death.

"I didn't know I was cut right away," Wellwood said. "I felt a rush of panic. I knew as soon as I looked at my skate that it was serious.

"I don't know all that much, but I knew from simple seventh-grade science that when you cut an artery, you might only have 4 or 6 minutes before you bleed out. There was so much blood instantly."

Wellwood began to feel weak, as trainers and Emergency Medical Services technicians frantically tried to apply pressure to his right leg and remove his equipment.

On his ride to Bridgeport Hospital, in the back of the ambulance, Wellwood had just one thought: stay alive.

"I did feel weak, but I tried as hard as I could to keep my eyes open," Wellwood said. "There was a lot of adrenaline. I don't want to sound dramatic when I say this, but if you close your eyes, you never know if you're going to wake back up. It was such a weird feeling."

At the hospital, Wellwood underwent emergency surgery to stop the bleeding. Days later in Philadelphia, renowned foot and ankle specialist Dr. Steven Raikin performed another operation to reattach the four tendons Wellwood severed - including the Achilles'.

Hockey players have sliced tendons on skates before. Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson severed his Achilles' on a similar play last season. On March 22, 1989, Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk severed the jugular vein in his neck - but not the carotid artery - and still nearly bled out on the ice at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.

Wellwood's injury, though, is said to be of a severity that has never been seen before in the sport - one artery, four tendons, multiple nerves. It was damage that Raikin - a physician who has published more than 50 medical papers on the foot and ankle - had never been asked to repair.

Wellwood was not wearing a cut-proof, kevlar-reinforced sock under his equipment at the time, which may have saved him.

"The surgeon never gave me a number , but I could tell from his sense that it was not good," Wellwood said. "It was something that some people have trouble walking again, let alone playing pro sports."

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said he has never dealt with an on-ice injury as severe as Wellwood in his 30 years in hockey.

"I've never seen anything like it," Holmgren said recently. "I mean, he was minutes away from dying. It doesn't get any more serious than that."

Nine months after surviving the fight of his life - and never losing consciousness in the back of that ambulance - Wellwood is now embroiled in a daily struggle to save his once-promising hockey career. His original prognosis from Raikin was that he would be sidelined for 9 to 12 months.

Wellwood, 23, played four games with the Flyers last season. He scored five goals in 24 NHL games in 2011-12, ironically carving out a niche on Peter Laviolette's roster with his speed and skating, the one facet of his game taken away from him.

Wellwood fully recognizes that his final mental image as a professional player may be leaving Webster Bank Arena on a stretcher. It has been a tough year for the Wellwood family. Eric's older brother, Kyle Wellwood, retired abruptly in October at age 30 after a failed run in the Swiss league. Kyle Wellwood netted 235 points in 489 career NHL games with Toronto, Vancouver, San Jose and Winnipeg.

Kyle Wellwood told reporters his "heart was no longer in the game." Quite the opposite is true with his younger brother, who can't stay out of the rink.

Right now, retirement isn't a word Eric Wellwood will let creep into his vocabulary. These days, he is back in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario - where he once starred with the OHL's Spitfires on a line with current Oilers alternate captain Taylor Hall.

He begins each morning with 2 hours of rehab work in the gym. Then he drives to the 6,500-seat WFCU Center to help the Spitfires. Both mentally and physically, Wellwood is in a far different frame of mind than he was last summer, stuck in South Jersey rehabbing while the rest of his teammates were home. He was in a dark place.

"We worked out something where Eric could go home and continue the rehab that he needs, while also being able to be with his family and work with the Spitfires," Holmgren said. "I think it's been good for both sides so far."

So far, working under the tutelage of former NHL tough guy and Spitfires head coach Bob Boughner, the experience in Windsor - across the river from Detroit - has been magical. When he's not rehabbing, Wellwood is working out with the Spitfires, helping them with video preparation, and hanging in the locker room.

"It has been good for a combination of factors," Wellwood said. "I think from an emotional standpoint, I wanted to be home. Every player with a potentially career-ending injury wants to be around family. I couldn't walk and get food in the beginning. I needed help with something as simple as a car ride. The training staff was great, but I didn't want to be in the way when the season started. They get busy."

Nothing, Wellwood says, has been as beneficial to his rehab as "being around the guys."

Boughner and another former NHLer, Warren Rychel, who is the GM of the Spitfires, have given Wellwood a unique insight into life on the other side of the bench. If he ever makes it back to the ice, his time in Windsor will prove helpful to his game.

"I've taught a lot of players to play the game, but I've also learned how the game should be played," Wellwood said. "I'm taking this month-by-month, and I have no idea what's going to happen, but I have no timeline for playing again. If I can't, I know now that I'd be interested in coaching."

Wellwood also laces up his skates each day for practice. That's when he is reminded of his incredibly long road back to normalcy.

In a rush to stop the bleeding, the surgeon in Connecticut didn't reconnect the severed artery in Wellwood's right leg. It was instead cordoned off - as blood naturally finds other passage ways.

While it saved Wellwood's life, blood flow to his ankle and foot is limited. With 65 to 70 percent of his nerves also cut - which may or may not regenerate on their own - the area is also extremely sensitive.

Add in the extreme muscle atrophy that Wellwood suffered after not being able to walk for months, and, well, you can understand that his recovery process may not be as simple as a 12-month window. Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros, who severed his Achilles' tendon in 2012, told Wellwood it took him nearly an entire year just to get most of his muscle back through strength work.

"There has not been a pain-free day," Wellwood said. "I can skate really hard, probably 75 percent of my normal capacity, but it's extremely painful. My foot gets extremely cold. When I take off my skate, my foot is completely white - with no color. Then, my tendons tighten and it makes it hard for me to walk right away."

Wellwood has been more or less limited to light skating. Or "not very fast, uncompetitive" skating with the Spitfires - no more than a coach might do.

Admittedly, Wellwood has little hope right now of continuing his playing career, even though he called his progression since last summer "huge." There are so many factors in play. His body may never repair and reroute the insides of his foot and ankle in a way that benefits a professional hockey player.

For their part, the Flyers have given Wellwood all the time in the world to attempt a comeback. He was a restricted free agent last summer, after the injury, and they signed him to an AHL contract and are paying him a full salary this season - a "classy move" Wellwood said is "reason alone to try and come back."

If Wellwood never plays another shift, he has already won. After flirting with death on the ice, carving out a future career in hockey won't be tough to overcome.

"I bring it up all the time, to my girlfriend, saying I could have died," Wellwood said. "I understand. I laugh at it, that I'm still alive. I don't know exactly how many minutes and seconds away I was, but I smile each and every day and giggle about it."


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