VANCOUVER – Dan Hamhuis didn’t see it coming.
The Vancouver Canucks defenceman had just lost the puck and was trying to get back in position with his team clinging to a late lead against the Rangers when a wild slapshot from New York’s Dan Boyle slammed into his face.
Hamhuis was wearing a visor, but it didn’t matter. He fell to the ice, kicking his skates and writhing in pain as blood spilled from his mouth. The damage was catastrophic. Some bones were broken, others were shattered.
“There are times as a defenceman where you know and you feel you’re in the danger zone,” Hamhuis said last week. “You protect yourself and you get the important stuff behind equipment. With this one I was well out of the shooting lane.
“It just came off his stick funny and caught me by total surprise.”
Doctors waited nearly 48 hours after the Dec. 9 injury before settling on how to put Hamhuis back together.
“You could count 15 to 20 breaks right through the face … and up into the cheek,” said Hamhuis. “There wasn’t a quick fix. It was figuring out how to anchor things to each other for support.”
Extra: Rebuilding Dan Hamhuis’ face
Dr. Peter Lennox was the point man for a team of six doctors who mapped out how to piece Hamhuis’ face back together. Collectively they’ve all worked on patients who’ve incurred blunt force trauma – but even they were surprised by the damage.
“You go through these series of decisions. Some of the fractures were easy, and those were the one I could access and put plates and screws on. There were some I could control without plates and screws, and there were some we didn’t even bother getting access to,” said Lennox.
“It’s kind of like a bag of chips, the bones are so many pieces, but they’re in good position. So if we can hold them where they were, then they should heal, as long as they have good blood supply.”
The 33-year-old had to be fed using a syringe for the first week following the surgery — sucking from a straw could have caused further damage — and his mouth was wired shut until early January.
“Through the Christmas break it was tough to see everybody else eating turkey,” Hamhuis said. “I was sitting there drinking smoothies.”
Apart from needing more dental surgery in the off-season, it’s now hard to see the severity of Hamhuis’ injuries on the surface. That doesn’t mean there aren’t long-term implications.
“I’ll have a couple plates in my cheeks permanently,” said Hamhuis, who lost about 10 pounds during his recovery. “There are a bunch of numb spots through my mouth and my gums and my nose a little bit. It’s hard to say how permanent that will be.”
The Smithers, B.C., native wasn’t thinking about his career in the days following the horrific injury, instead focusing on leading a normal life with his wife and two young daughters.
“It was just a matter of getting through it,” said Hamhuis. “Especially those first seven to 10 days, it was dealing with the claustrophobia of being wired shut and being on a lot of drugs at that time. Hockey wasn’t on the forefront of my mind.
“As time went on things heal, things get better, things get easier, the wires come off and you start looking forward to hockey again.”
Hamhuis, who missed a chunk of last season with a groin problem, was back skating with the Canucks prior to the all-star break and is eager to return to the lineup soon as Vancouver tries to push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Just from the pain point of view you never want to see a buddy go through something like that,” said Canucks goalie Ryan Miller. “It’s been inspiring to watch.”
Hamhuis has declared himself fit to play and is hoping to work through any jitters before returning to game action.
“It’s just a matter of getting my timing back. That’s going to come through practices,” he said. “That’s where I hope to lose the tentativeness. Whether you’re injured or not, just being out for two months, it’s tough to come back.”
In his sixth season with the Canucks, Hamhuis is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Hamhuis has a no-movement clause in his contract and wants to stay in Vancouver, but understands there’s a possibility management might choose a different path.
“It’s an obvious thing that it’s there,” he said. “The most important thing right now is to get back on the ice and get playing. I think our team’s in a great position right now to make a good run.
“I really believe in this team. I like the direction we’re going. I like our young guys and it’s something that I would like to be a part of.”
– With files from Global News