As soon as he saw the blood, James Pizzutelli got ready to move. He didn’t know it yet, but the athletic trainer for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres had just witnessed one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever captured on a live broadcast (GRAPHIC video in link). During an unremarkable scramble for the puck early in the March 22, 1989, game — the kind of play that happens dozens of times every night in the NHL — the skate of Blues’ winger Steve Tuttle tore a 6-inch gash across goalie Clint Malarchuk’s neck, slashing his jugular. Malarchuk had only seconds before he’d bleed out on the ice.
Pizzutelli put one foot on the Sabres’ bench and the other on the boards, readying himself to jump onto the ice. He could see blood starting to pool around Malarchuk as players from both teams began to frantically motion toward him.
As he jumped and sprinted, Pizzutelli realized he was facing a wound less like a hockey injury and more like the trauma he’d seen as a part-time medic in Vietnam.
“What I first did on my way out as I saw the blood spurting out of his neck, I reached into my right pocket because I used to have this big wad of gauzes, so I tried to jam it in the hole,” Pizzutelli told Coffee or Die Magazine in a recent phone interview, adding that he was running so fast he nearly slid into Malarchuk himself. “Some guys would lay down. I needed to get him off quick, and I was thinking if that would have happened at the other end of the arena, things could have been different right now. But it happened literally 10 yards from the doctor’s office.”
Pizzutelli’s aggressive actions — to reach into Malarchuk’s neck, pinch the severed artery with his fingertips, and keep applying pressure on the gaping wound in those initial 30 to 40 seconds — were crucial in saving the goalie’s life.
At 39, Pizzutelli, or “Pizza” as he was known around the team, had been the athletic trainer for the Buffalo Sabres for nine years, but it was his experiences as a US Army combat engineer and part-time medic during a 13-month tour in Vietnam that prepared him to act fast.
Almost two decades before that Wednesday in Buffalo, Pizzutelli was attending college near his home in Rochester, New York. He was 19, in his freshman year, when his name was selected in a lottery. A draft notice requested his service in the US Army. He was sent to South Vietnam in 1970. His unit’s missions were to conduct patrols and destroy bridges used by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. Six days into his 13-month tour, he and four others were run over by a truck. One American was killed, and Pizzutelli was medevaced out, having suffered four broken ribs. When he returned to his unit, he had a new appreciation for the value of a medic on a team.
The battlefield camaraderie combined with the unpredictability of catastrophic injuries he witnessed on a daily basis put him in the right headspace to perform when called upon.
“In my platoon we had 20 guys,” Pizzutelli told Coffee or Die, recalling his role as a part-time medic for his team. “You’re over there with those 20 guys for a minimum of 12 months. It’d be like me being with my hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, for 12 months. It’s like a big family.”
Pizzutelli stayed by Malarchuk’s side in the locker room. The bleeding goalie didn’t think he was going to make it and requested a priest and a phone call to his mother. An ambulance arrived about 10 minutes after the injury. In the hospital, doctors needed 300 stitches to close the wound.
The shock of the injury caused two fans to have heart attacks and 11 more to faint. Three players even vomited on the ice at the horrific sight. Remarkably, Malarchuk only spent one night in the hospital and returned to the ice a month later. But his recovery remains a lifelong battle.
The goalie went on to complete four more seasons in his 11-year NHL career but has suffered from post-traumatic stress and talked openly about subsequent attempts at suicide. Despite his near death, the NHL has not mandated that goalies wear neck guards, even after another player, Richard Zednik, suffered a similar injury in 2008. Some players opt to wear them, but the macho culture that celebrates fistfights and knocked-out teeth is indifferent to the protective equipment.
Still, Malarchuk credits Pizzutelli with saving his life that night. Pizzutelli credits his time in the Army with preparing him for the moment.
“So me at a young age — you’re there and all of a sudden you hear a thud and a guy got shot in the shoulder, in the hand, or something like that. There’s one medic per platoon, and he could be riding with someone else,” Pizzutelli said. “I would always dive in. I think that’s what prepared me the most.”
Feature photo: Screen capture from YouTube.