Saturday's game between the Dawson Creek Junior Canucks and the Slave Lake Wolves was always destined to be a strange one. They always are.
When we made our first trip to Slave Lake last season, we were in some ways fortunate to arrive on a semi-historic evening for both the team and the town they play for. It was the Wolves first home game in their return to the NWJHL, and a tall drink of water for a community thirsty for junior hockey, having gone a year without it in the wake of the terrible fires that had ravaged Slave Lake the previous summer. It was an emotional evening, for some perhaps too emotional -- as in the third period, when an intoxicated fan dissatisfied with my call of the game offered to take my job off my hands, so that, in his words, he could tell the folks back home just how bad the Junior Canucks really were. When I refused, he offered to fight me instead. I was able to talk him out of all of this, live on the air, in what is still the most bizarre incident I've been a part of as a broadcaster.
Our second trip came roughly six weeks later, on a November roadie where as few as twelve, maybe thirteen Dawson Creek skaters could make the long bus ride back to the Arctic Ice Centre. Despite the short bench, or perhaps because of it, the Canucks played one of their best, most spirited games of the year, dominating the Wolves 5-2 in a victory no one would have predicted. It came at a great cost: Dawson's star goalie, David Readman, was run numerous times in the game. Readman, who would have surely won the Best Goalie and League MVP awards had he played a full year, blew out his knee and never played another game.
Like I said: strange.
So I wasn't exactly looking forward to making the long trek back this past Saturday, with the safety of both the players as well as myself chief in my mind. That I would be calling the game in physical agony, riding rollercoaster temperature swings while locked in a losing battle with the flu, seemed bad enough. That the Canucks had rather hilariously forgotten to bring with them their game jerseys, instead making do with the Slave Lake Sr. Wolves' road blacks and in the process wearing almost entirely wrong jersey numbers, appeared to be the cherry on top.
That was just the beginning.
With a little under five minutes remaining in the opening period, Slave Lake forward Jordan Tonsi moved into the offensive zone along the left-wing boards. Tonsi's footing was shaky and he was moving at high speeds. When he couldn't cut towards the net, blocked out by Dawson Creek's Mitch Palfi, Tonsi tried to dance around his check and was mostly successful, losing control of the puck in the process. The puck drifted towards the corner, and Tonsi's already uneven footing was noticeably worse as he looked to retrieve it. Palfi, getting beaten wide and a half-step behind, pushed his man as he blew by him to separate him from the play.
The result was devastating. Tonsi lost his balance on the push and flew face-first into the glass in, from my vantage point, the far-side corner of the Dawson Creek end. He crumpled to the ice and did not get up. For half an hour he was attended to by a slew of trainers before an emergency response crew could finally stretcher him off the ice to a waiting ambulance. It is difficult to convey just how stomach-churning an incident this was to watch. Even now, as I replay it in my head for the thousandth time, the outcome seems so obvious, almost right from the moment Tonsi entered the zone at top speed on shaky feet -- the inevitable end of the falling pieces in a horrific Rube Goldberg device. "This is definitely a hockey play, but jeez," I can't help but think. "If only Mitch had shown better judgment and just not hit a guy in such a dangerous area of the ice." This is not to lay blame. It's just a simple regret.
Of course, Mitch Palfi doesn't need me to tell him that to feel regret. Tonsi was flown by STARS Air Ambulance to hospital in Edmonton with bleeding on the brain. He was put into a medically-induced coma for three days while doctors waited for his brain-swelling to subside, but has since been woken up and, now able to function on his own, been taken off life support. If you feel horrible just reading that, and you should, imagine being the guy who pushed him.
But Mitch is a good kid. I've known him for more than a year now and like him a great deal. He is a character off the ice, and he plays with character on it. Since Saturday I've seen a lot of anger directed at him for "the dirtiest hit of the season", or seen furious Wolves fans demand he be suspended for the rest of the year. This is nonsense.
But it's my fault.
Because if anyone out there who wasn't in the building to see it for themselves thinks what happened on Saturday was an awful, reckless hit from behind, it's because that's what I told them it was.
As Tonsi lay motionless on the ice with 4:49 to go in the opening period, both teams went back to their dressing rooms to sit and wait. They talked about cancelling the game if players were too shaken by what had happened, but both agreed the game should continue. Eventually. First, the young man who had been so unfortunately injured on the ice needed to be helped off of it. It was agreed that teams would take the first intermission early, allowing the zamboni to do its rounds once Tonsi had been stretchered off the playing surface, which he was, nearly thirty minutes after he was hit. A roughly fifteen minute intermission followed.
During this time, my radio broadcast of the game never stopped. We took four commercial breaks, but beyond that I was left to talk and talk and talk, on my own, about something that put my already twisted insides through the ringer just to look at. I tried talking about how the game had gone up until that point -- about Colter Tkach's snapshot that had given the Wolves the game's only goal, about the Wolves' 8 shots on goal to the Canucks' 7. It all felt so stupid and meaningless in the face of a motionless body lying on the ice. The longer Tonsi didn't move, the harder it was to talk about anything else.
I thought back to the only other time I'd had to broadcast through an extended injury stoppage, and what I'd learned from that. In that same game in Slave Lake last year where I narrowly escaped fan fisticuffs, Dawson Creek's Nicko Miller had been nailed from behind into the glass in the early stages of the third period. Miller fell to the ice and had to be helped off by teammates. He was extremely woozy, and collapsed to his knees again as soon as he was off the ice. I speculated aloud that while I hoped he didn't have a concussion, it looked as though he might. Afterwards, I was criticized heavily for such speculation. "Never," I was told, "ever speculate on the outcome or nature of the injury when you just don't know. Always talk about the hit."
So for forty-five minutes, that's what I did, trying very very hard at all times to be respectful of the young man still lying on the ice, and being very careful to be tough on the hit without assassinating the character of the young man who threw it. It was easily one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.
There was just one problem: the story I told, and the story that the head official and both coaches all agree on, are not the same story. They have about a 99% positive DNA match, but they diverge in a pretty pivotal place, and that's point of contact. The referee did not call it hitting from behind. On the radio, I did. Repeatedly. In my eyes, Palfi, already beaten and a half-step behind, pushed into the upper back / shoulder of a guy blowing past him, who stumbled forward face-first both on his own shaky feet and the weight of the push.
Everyone who really matters in determining the outcome of the game agreed it was a check to the side. Even now, replaying it in slow-motion in my head, I'm not sure I agree. The momentum of the push and direction of the fall just don't jive with "side-to-side contact" in my head.
It doesn't matter. I'm wrong.
Because here's the thing: it didn't happen in slow-motion. It happened very, very quickly. So fast in fact that Tonsi was out-cold on the ice almost as soon as he'd skated into the offensive zone. And as much as I'd hoped that Palfi would show better judgment in that area of the ice, I need to show better judgment as well, because second-guessing the decisions that take place in the blink of an eye isn't always fair to the guys making them.
This was an accident, not an act of malice. The Wolves, quick to forgive, sought no vengeance through the rest the game, a 5-3 win for Dawson Creek. After some early tentativeness once teams returned to play, it became a perfectly normal hockey game again. With luck, this weekend's games between the two teams will be just the same, because there's nothing to avenge when no one is to blame.
It's good to be a trusted voice. It means people listen to and respect me. But I am not infallible. I'm just a man with a phone, and I make mistakes. A rink full of emotion can do funny things to people. It can make a drunken teenager challenge a complete stranger to a fight over the call in a game his team is winning anyway. And it can make a tortured man look desperately for a way to undo the horror before him that he'd rather not be talking about.
I'm sorry, Mitch.