Tie game. Third period. Carolina took two penalties on the same shift, and out came Manny Malhotra to kill the 5-on-3. This is what the Hurricanes had signed him to do. This is what he had fought back to do. He won a faceoff. He blocked a shot, and then another, and then …
In a split-second, the puck rose off the stick of the Detroit Red Wings’ Henrik Zetterberg and struck Malhotra somewhere scary. In the visor? In the helmet? You could hear puck on plastic all the way up in the press box, but it happened so fast and so far away that you didn’t know which piece of plastic. After all Malhotra had been through, you held your breath.
On March 16, 2011, Malhotra was playing for the Vancouver Canucks. He was not wearing a visor. A deflected puck struck him in the left eye and altered the course of his life and career. After undergoing surgeries to repair the damage, he returned in the Stanley Cup Final that year. He played the 2011-12 season and began the 2012-13 season, and then the Canucks shut him down against his will because they feared for his safety. He didn’t return to the NHL until Nov. 1, and only after he proved he could still play in the minors.
But Thursday night, Malhotra saw the shot. He reacted in time. He turned his head and took the puck off the side of the helmet. Though a whistle blew and he went straight to the bench, he quickly nodded to tell the trainer he was OK.
“It was a nice relief, you know?” said Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller after the game, a 4-3 loss. “A little nervous. [But] it could have been anybody.”
* * * * *
On Thursday morning, Malhotra was standing in the hallway outside the dressing room when he was asked a simple question: Why is it worth the risk?
“What risk?” he asked.
That it could happen again, he was told. That he could lose the sight remaining in his eye. That his reduced vision could make him vulnerable to another injury.
“You could say that to the 700 other players in this league: ‘Why take the risk?’ ” he said. “You could blow a knee out. You could break your arm. You could have your Achilles’ tendon slashed. There’s so many things that go on with the sport that are inherent risks that come with it, but they’re so few and far between that I don’t look at it as a risk at all. I’m not taking a risk.”
At least, in Malhotra’s mind, he isn’t taking any more of a risk than anyone else.
This is a feel-good story about guts and perseverance; this is a cautionary tale about the lottery that is hockey and the chances players take. It’s simple, and it’s complicated. Sometimes a team needs to protect a player from himself; no one knows a player’s body better than himself. Doctors disagree. Who’s right?
[Related: The NHL's 13 most pleasant surprises so far this season]
Answering a question about Malhotra’s vision and faceoffs, Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said: “I don’t see through his eyes, so I don’t know what he sees.”
None of us do, in any sense.
Malhotra’s left eye is sunken and discolored. “It’s not what it was, and it never will be,” he said. “But it’s really good.” He said once he got over the initial fear, it became a physical issue and then a non-issue. He put on a visor.
The Canucks were concerned. Malhotra did not play up to his usual standards in 78 games in 2011-12 and in nine games in 2012-13. More important, they felt he was putting himself in bad situations on the ice. Alain Vigneault, then the Canucks’ coach, told the New York Daily News he would show Malhotra video and ask if he saw this guy or that guy. Most of the time, Malhotra would say he saw him or felt him, but Vigneault felt there was a “gray area there.”
General manager Mike Gillis put Malhotra on injured reserve and held him out the rest of the season. Malhotra was upset. It’s hard to blame either of them.
Malhotra became an unrestricted free agent. He was 33, not yet old. But even though he was known as a character guy, an excellent penalty killer and a top faceoff man, no one seemed to want him.
“We talked to a few teams, and they said, ‘We’ll keep you posted. Right now we have other options,’ ” Malhotra said. “I think the picture that was painted of my health last year didn’t represent the way I felt and the way it really was. It was more Mike’s opinion. I think I had to answer a lot of questions – first, just a lot of conversations, reassuring people that I feel fine, my health is great, it’s where it should be. And then the biggest part was obviously on-ice, to show I could still contribute, still play the game.”
[Also: The NHL's 13 biggest disappointments so far this season]
Malhotra worked out at home in Vancouver, skating every day. His wife was supportive. His friends were supportive. So were former teammates and guys with whom he had never even played.
“They said, ‘If you feel you can play, go get it,’ ” he said. “It was a real motivating factor to hear them say that, not from a place of pity. ‘Oh, I hope he can play.’ They realize what a privilege it is to play in this league, and to have that taken away was a rough feeling. So they pushed me.”
And so …
“You wait, and you hope,” he said. “As camp approaches, you’re hoping for a call. You see other guys get PTOs and other signings and other offers, and you hope for that. I just stayed with it and kept checking injury reports and rosters.”
Finally, one day, while he was at his son’s soccer practice, he received a call from his agent. The Hurricanes were a possibility. Muller had played with him in Dallas and knew him well, and he was looking for veteran leadership.
“The No. 1 question we asked Manny was, ‘Are you healthy enough to play?’ ” Muller said. “And he said he was. We gave him an opportunity.”
Malhotra played eight games with the Charlotte Checkers of the American Hockey League on a professional tryout. He had zero points and was minus-2. One opposing coach said he wasn’t much of a factor other than faceoffs. But the Hurricanes saw enough to sign him to a one-year, $600,000 deal.
Remember that Malhotra and the Hurricanes have doctors, too, and the ’Canes tested his vision as part of his physical. Malhotra won’t disclose the results, not even in vague percentages, but he said he “satisfied their requirements and kind of put them at ease.”
“I feel comfortable, confident on the ice,” Malhotra said. “I see plays coming. I see everything. I feel – quote, unquote – normal, as I did prior to my injury. There’s no hesitation. There’s no what-ifs. I’m just playing the game.”
* * * * *
Tie game. Overtime. Carolina had lost five straight, and here came Manny Malhotra, out of limbo, up from the minors, in only his third game for the Hurricanes, on a breakaway. He charged down the ice with two opponents trailing, and then he went from his forehand to his backhand, and then …
He scored. He lifted the Hurricanes to a 2-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 5. He had his Disney moment.
“When the phone wasn’t ringing and there was so much doubt as to if the phone would ring, to get back to this level was a great feeling,” Malhotra said. “And obviously to score a goal in this league was fun.”
Malhotra has one goal and one assist in 10 games. But he’s in a bottom-six role and plus-5, and his main job is to be a presence in the room, kill penalties and win faceoffs – and he’s winning more than 64 percent of his draws.
“I don’t know how his game was before the injury – I didn’t see him much – but I haven’t really noticed the effects of what he went through,” said Hurricanes center Jordan Staal. “He’s a very solid player for us.”
You hold your breath when Malhotra goes down to block a shot and the puck flies at his eyes. You remember what the Canucks thought and why.
You also understand that Malhotra, more than anyone else, knows what he’s getting into because of what he went through. You respect his desire to keep doing what he has done since he was 7 years old, to not let the injury stop him or his eye to define him.
It didn’t drive him away from hockey. It drove him back.
“I think last year having been shut down and not being around the team at all, it really kind of fueled that passion more,” Malhotra said. “I realize how much I love the game, how much I love being a part of a team. I love being in a locker room. I love joking around with the guys. I love training with the guys. I love competing out on the ice. It’s what I do and what I love. To have that taken away from me just made me realize that much more how much I want to do this.”
MORE NHL COVERAGE ON YAHOO SPORTS:
[Related: Making history: Jaromir Jagr ties Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe with OT goal]
[Nick Cotsonika: Three Periods: West best; World Cup vs. Olympics; Seth Jones watch]
[Related: Hockey Hugs: Huberdeau happy; creepy kid; Caps' group grapple]
[Related: A taste of 3-on-3 OT: Is it better than the shootout?]