The Capitals’ John Carlson, who is set to return, opens up about a horrific injury


Minutes after being hit in the right side of the head by a 140 km/h puck, John Carlson rested in the back seat of a darkened ambulance en route to a hospital. EMTs turned on the lights so Carlson could see his phone.

Then the most difficult moment for him came on the evening of December 23rd. It wasn’t the long trail of blood he left on the ice after receiving a slapshot to the head in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, nor did doctors later tell him he had a fractured skull and a lacerated temporal artery – but instead had to he was on the phone with his wife and 7-year-old son Lucca, who were standing in the stands of the Capital One Arena.

“He could pick up on what everyone else was thinking,” Carlson said of his son, and assuring his family he would be fine, he arrived at the hospital and underwent brain scans. The prognosis explained the throbbing pain Carlson felt in his head and the blood that had spurted from the artery in his temple – but it was tempered by relief at not having suffered any concussion symptoms or neurological problems. He was told that in time he would be able to play hockey again.

Nearly three months later, Carlson is edging closer to a return to the Capitals’ lineup – he could be back as early as next week – but as he skated with the team on practice Saturday he seemed grateful after suffering, just on the Being on ice, which some of his coaches and teammates called one of the scariest injuries they’ve ever seen in hockey.

“I feel rejuvenated,” Carlson said. “I’ve been trying to take care of myself, get better, do things I wouldn’t normally do — and prepare to come back.”

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Carlson prefers not to think about the night that could have ended his career, but if he tries hard enough, he can recall the survival instinct that kicked in after he felt the vulcanized rubber bounce off his head .

Desperate, he ran back to the Capital One Arena dressing room but kept his eyes closed because he was in so much pain. When he reached the trainers’ room, they rushed to stop the bleeding. When they did, Carlson’s head was heavily bandaged – but he was still thinking about everyone else.

It was two nights before Christmas, so he thought of his loved ones in town watching him play. He thought of Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 802nd goal just as Carlson was being wheeled on a stretcher through the arena’s tunnels, past the ice reamers, and into second on the NHL all-time list. Goal scored in the ambulance. He considered what he would say to his wife and son.

Carlson’s teammates meanwhile thought about him and somehow worked their stomachs to end the game. Each of them was taught the risks of the sport from an early age. But seldom does a player take a speeding puck to the face like Carlson, and it was enough to rouse even the most diehard of the group.

“It was scary,” said defender Trevor van Riemsdyk.

“They worry, it’s his brain, his ear – there’s a lot going on up there,” center Nic Dowd said.

“Hockey is a pretty wild sport,” said forward Tom Wilson. “When you see something like that, you see how real it is.”

As much as Carlson has had to heal physically over the past three months — both from the wound and to stay in hockey shape — he’s also had to mentally adjust to the game. When he first got back on the ice, he had to get used to the intense sounds of the game again.

“When you hear the puck coming around the glass or when you hear the puck coming off the bar, you’re a little nervous at first. The more you deal with it, you get used to everything again,” said Carlson, who forced himself to stay away from the coaching room at the arena. “I don’t even like looking in there,” he said, “because I know what I felt at the time was hard.”

In his many years as a coach, it was one of the scariest injuries the Capitals’ Peter Laviolette had seen. While Carlson has been working on his return, Laviolette wondered whether the 33-year-old should return in a difficult year with just 12 games left or wait until next season. Of course, Laviolette won’t put Carlson on the ice until he’s cleared by the team’s medical staff. For the past week he has been wearing a blue non-contact sweater during training, but that could change in the coming days.

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“It’s like a caged dog right now,” Laviolette said. “You could tell him he’s not going to play, but eventually he’ll be acquitted.”

Carlson said he wouldn’t come back “if there’s any risk to his future,” but it was difficult not being able to contribute as the Capitals’ top defenseman while they struggled in his absence. Carlson watched a replay of the shot – captured by the Jets’ Brenden Dillon, a former Capitals teammate – but at one point he decided not to torment himself by thinking about what he could have done differently.

He instead chooses to reflect on what came after – the coaches who helped stop the bleeding, the teammates who rallied around him and the family members who were there for him when he was brought home from the hospital came home.

“Emotionally, it’s been an interesting time,” Carlson said. “I was just worried about everyone else.”

Note: Starter Darcy Kümper left Saturday’s practice early after suffering an upper-body injury, the team said. Later in the day, the Capitals recalled Hershey goaltender Zach Fucale from the American Hockey League. The Capitals’ John Carlson, who is set to return, opens up about a horrific injury

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