ANAHEIM, Calif. — Roman Polak never even saw the puck that smashed through his face and instantly elevated him to legend status inside the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room.
“I just tried to box out the guy and all of a sudden I was on the ice with blood in my hands,” Polak recalled Tuesday, following a workout at Honda Center.
It was just a week ago when the rugged defenceman was battling a man for position in front of the net during a game against Washington. Polak had his back to the point when Troy Brouwer wired a shot that deflected off teammate Tyler Bozak’s stick and caught him flush in the right cheek as he turned his head.
The Air Canada Centre fell deathly quiet.
On the bench some teammates feared Polak had suffered a broken jaw. Bozak was stricken with guilt, but felt a little tinge of optimism as trainers rushed onto the ice and helped him to the dressing room.
“He wasn’t making too many noises or anything like that,” said Bozak. “When you see that much blood and everything … obviously he’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen.”
That would soon become evident to team doctors, who closed the wound on Polak’s face with 15 stitches on the outside of the cheek and seven more inside. They were reasonably confident he hadn’t suffered a concussion because the impact was to his jaw area and the only damage seemed to be a few missing teeth.
They figured he had got off fairly lucky and everything would be fine with a little rest and recovery. But Polak had other ideas.
He was persistent in telling the doctors he was going to return to the game. After much debate, they eventually relented and Polak would help set up Trevor Smith for a goal on his first shift back.
“I think it’s pretty wild,” said interim Leafs coach Peter Horachek. “Most people would be in the hospital and he just kept saying: ‘I want to go back out there.’”
What shocked his teammates most is that Polak didn’t don a visor or full cage when he returned. His cheek would eventually swell up to the point where he could barely see out of his right eye, but still he played.
Some of the Caps players checked in on him during whistles and even took it easy on him in the corners, according to Polak, which might be the ultimate sign of respect in a competitive sport.
Amazingly, the 28-year-old Czech claims it wasn’t event the most painful injury he’s suffered during his hockey career.
That one came a number of years ago when he was playing for the St. Louis Blues’ AHL team in Peoria and had a screw inserted to help heal a high-ankle sprain. After the season ended, the doctor told him that he would have to come in and receive an anesthesia for the procedure, but Polak already had a flight home booked for the following morning.
So he requested that the screw get removed right then and there.
“(He used) a regular screwdriver,” said Polak. “It was the worst pain in my life.”
The slap shot to the face was only moderately better. Asked to describe how it felt, he replied “awful.”
“It’s just painful, especially after it happened and I just sat down and the adrenaline just came down and it started throbbing,” said Polak. “It was just a bad feeling.”
His ability to play through the pain stands out even in a sport that is known to be black-and-blue. Polak is in his first season with the Leafs and his teammates are still marvelling that he’s remained in the lineup.
Veteran defenceman Cody Franson said that taking a puck in the face is his “nightmare” and couldn’t think of another incident more impressive than this one.
“That’s right up there,” said Franson. “You hear the stories in the aftermath of what guys have played through in the playoffs: broken fingers, broken whatever. But that’s tough.
“You get a puck in the face — your face is completely swollen, you’ve lost teeth, you’ve got 30 stitches — and you come back out. He’s tough as nails.”
Polak hasn’t lost his sense of humour through the incident. The inside of his mouth remains sensitive and sore, but he joked that he’s managed to keep his weight up by continuing to eat ice cream.
He also snapped a rough-looking selfie the morning after getting hit with the puck and sent the picture off to some friends.
“It was all right,” he said. “I thought it was going to be worse than that. I think I can still do my modelling career.”
A beauty, to be sure.