From the Magazine: Clint Malarchuk, The Survivor

This story originally appeared in the May 21, 2012 edition of Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

Silver bullets rip through a Nevada afternoon — chasing rabbits, piercing cans — and scatter into the brush that stretches to the mountains beyond this tiny horse ranch on the edge of the Great Basin. The gun is one of several on the grounds. Nothing particularly special about it — a brown wooden butt, grey metal barrel. Just another tool for being rid of the things that need to be gone.

He didn’t choose the bullets. Just grabbed the first ones he saw — .22 short, as opposed to the .22 longs that sat nearby. He fires them out, one by one. He doesn’t keep track of the shots. His head is lost in repeating thoughts, swirling endlessly: “I can’t go on. Can’t do this anymore.” He can’t escape the constant hum of his anxiety. “Can’t get out of my head. Can’t turn it off.” His tanned face, rugged and square, is red and wet with tears.

The pills don’t help. Haven’t for a while. Just seem to make things worse. And the more he pops, the further he slips into that place where reason dies. The booze just cranks up the hum.

There is no note; no poetry here. No tidy ending for last goodbyes. He didn’t plan to die — not today, anyway. Didn’t wake up feeling that this, finally, would be it. As easy, as quick as the bullets in that gun — click by click, one by one — a trigger tug away from being gone.

He sits down on a stool behind the shed, facing out to where coyotes roam and wild horses run. He rests the gun on the table next to him.

Hockey loved Clint Malarchuk. He was the game’s Cowboy Goalie, its stone-cold keeper. If any player was resilient to pain, unmoved by fear, it was him. Through the 1980s, he was known as much for his fists as he was for his saves. He seemed unbreakable, immune to the pressure of the most stressful position in sport. But behind those grey-green eyes, an endless war waged. Plagued by the debilitating effects of mental illness, Malarchuk did everything he could to survive in a sport notoriously impervious to his struggle. Hockey loved Clint Malarchuk, but the game couldn’t save him. In fact, it nearly killed him. Twice death gripped him, and twice — by fate, or God, or just damn luck — Malarchuk survived. Today, with a scar across his neck and a bullet in his head, his story is far from over.

The boy carves across a moonlit rink, weaving through the frozen blade marks made by others who left hours ago, retreating to warmth and dinner. Clint Malarchuk has no time for such comforts. He’s already home — under these stars, on this ice — stickhandling past the ghosts of an imaginary game. He’s been here since sunrise. The City of Edmonton may own this ice, but it belongs to him. It has since Malarchuk was six, when he’d drag his older siblings Terry and Garth out from the family’s bungalow on cold mornings, through the backyard and over the fence to the yard behind Elmwood Elementary School.

Many kids grow up obsessed with hockey, but for Malarchuk the game is a way to escape the constant anxieties that have kept him isolated, retreating to his room for hours. Now 13, he cries often, alone and uncontrollably. When his father comes home drunk and filled with rage, Malarchuk shakes with fear. He can still hear the windows shattering, his father smashing them with a hammer on a winter night. They huddled on the kitchen floor — Malarchuk, his mom, and Terry — as every window fell to pieces. A year ago, Malarchuk held a knife to his stomach and pressed its point just enough to draw blood — enough to feel pain on the outside. His mom took him to see a doctor, and he spent a month in the hospital.

But here, at the rink, there’s no anxiety. He fires the puck off the boards and the thud echoes through the night. The hollow percussion calms him. He doesn’t worry about the house behind him, cold and emptying out. Garth, his hero, moved out years ago. Soon Terry, his sister, will be married. His parents’ marriage will end. He’ll help his mother sell the furniture to pay the bills. He’ll hop on his bike each summer morning and collect every bottle he can find, packing them in garbage bags, hiding them in bushes. Later, he and his mom will drive around in their rusting car and collect his bounty. He’ll buy his first pair of real goalie skates that way.

Those skates will carry him through the top ranks of Edmonton’s minor hockey system. He’ll scrub his pads clean of puck marks, making sure they look tidy and new. In the off-season, he’ll work out for hours, up to eight a day, pumping rep after rep, running block after block, always pushing further, leaving no muscle untrained. He’ll build up a tough-guy persona, the never-back-down netminder, but he’ll also be the dressing room clown, the likeable prankster.

He’ll rise through junior with the Portland Winter Hawks. Catch the eye of NHL scouts. Be drafted by the Quebec Nordiques. Be an NHL star through the 1980s. Sports Illustrated will compare him to a raptor, a bird of prey, his nose broken eight times, hammered into a distinctive beak. He’ll work harder than anyone in practice, eating up 5-on-1 shooting drills. On road trips, he’ll be the main event, enticing a teammate to ride horses across a posh Florida golf course with him, grabbing flag-sticks from greens and jousting.

Life will be everything he dreamed of. But right now, barely a teen, Malarchuk does another lap across this schoolyard rink. There are so many things to skate away from, so many scars on this white ice to cross. But damn it, goddamn it, he’ll get there. Just another dark, frozen hour… and one more… one more… one more…

It’s March 22, 1989. There are almost 15,000 fans in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium watching the Sabres, the team Malarchuk recently joined, take on the St. Louis Blues. The clock above centre ice clicks down the first period action: 4:48… 4:47… 4:46. Malarchuk shuffles in his net, pushing out as the attacking Blues move into the Sabres zone — 4:45 –Blues forward Steve Tuttle breaks toward the net — 4:44 — he’s hauled down by Sabres defenceman Uwe Krupp, and they crash into Malarchuk — 4:43. Time stops. Malarchuk doesn’t feel the blade. Just a kick to the mask. Routine, it seems. Then he sees the blood pouring out like a scene from a horror movie, spurting with every beat of his heart. He hunches forward, clutching his neck. Players crowd around. Fans gasp. Fans faint. The TV announcer begs the cameras to turn away. Blues forward Rick Meagher screams for help.

Jim Pizzutelli, the Sabres trainer, a medic from the Vietnam war, arrives first. He presses his towel against the six-inch gash, against a steady stream of blood. “Jim, it’s my jugular,” Malarchuk chokes, remembering something he’d read somewhere. “I’ve got three minutes.” He’s certain he will die. He thinks of his mother who is watching the game from Calgary. He gets up and skates through the doors behind the net, stumbling toward the trainer’s room. Had it been the second period, he might have died near centre ice.

In the trainer’s room, a doctor kneels next to Malarchuk, bringing all his weight down on the dying goalie’s neck. “Just let me know when you need a breath,” he says. Every few seconds, Malarchuk winces and the doctor lets up, blood jumping from the wound. The frantic routine continues as they ride to Buffalo General Hospital, where nurses cut off his goalie equipment. It takes an hour and a half of surgery to repair the gashed muscle and vein, sliced a millimetre from his voice box and into his exterior jugular. Had the blade cut any deeper, Malarchuk would be dead.

The next afternoon Malarchuk holds court before a pack of reporters. Pale and weak, he jokes that he asked the doctors to stitch him up in time for the third period. He says it will be tough to play again, but he’ll be ready. “When you get knocked off the horse, you get back on,” he says.

Two days after the accident, the Sabres host a sellout crowd against the Vancouver Canucks. Malarchuk, still weak, stands at the open boards waving to the 16,433 fans who are on their feet, cheering wildly for him. The Canucks tap their sticks on the ice. Malarchuk feels his body shake, dizzy from the loss of blood, faint from the rush of living.

The nightmares begin immediately after the accident, plaguing him night after night. Malarchuk wakes up in his bed, clutching his neck, covered in sweat and gasping for air. During the day, his compulsions make life unmanageable; he is constantly washing and scrubbing away germs, constantly checking to make sure he has done the things he has just done. Thoughts spiral in his head. He can’t get them out. He’s angry, sad, constantly depressed. After a heroic return to the ice, Malarchuk’s career declines rapidly. His play with the Sabres has been mediocre at best. At night, he’s exhausted but unable to rest. He trudges to the rink, red-eyed and lost. A doctor diagnoses him with obsessive compulsive disorder. He goes on medication that makes his hands shake. Rumours of his illness swirl around the league. The taunts — “Hey Malarchuk, pop another pill” — are constant, between whistles and as he skates past the opposing bench. He fights back with his fists, like he always has. It’s no use. He’s sent back and forth to the minors before his contract with the Sabres expires in 1992.

Rick Dudley, his former coach in Buffalo, brings him out west when his career is on the edge of ending. Dudley, the toughest man Malarchuk has ever known, is coaching the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League. Malarchuk hopes the change might help to quell the battle inside him. But hockey is no longer a sanctuary for him. Halfway through the season, Malarchuk walks into Dudley’s office. “Rick, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he says. Dudley looks into his friend’s red eyes. He knows about Malarchuk’s past, about the demons he battled. “Don’t worry about hockey. Don’t worry about letting me down,” he says. “We’re going to get you help.”

That help came from Dr. Stephen Stahl, a renowned psychiatrist, who diagnosed Malarchuk with depression, which was compounding his OCD. Stahl put Malarchuk on medication that made him feel whole for the first time. While in San Diego, he returned to the doctor regularly to monitor his progress. The next season, in 1993, he joined the Las Vegas Thunder, an expansion team in the IHL. As an NHL vet, he was billed as the team’s marquee player. He bought a ranch near Vegas, and was given horses by the Thunder as part of his contract. On the ice, Malarchuk started to play with the confidence of his best NHL days. He connected often with his two kids, a son and daughter, from two previous marriages. He was married for a third time. The Boston Bruins came calling, hoping to bring him back to the NHL. But at 33 years old, Malarchuk was finally content.

For more than a decade, Malarchuk managed to keep his OCD and depression under control. He ended his playing career in 1996, taking on a new role as an assistant coach. He later joined the Florida Panthers as a goalie coach. There, he was reunited with Dudley, who became the Panthers’ head coach in 2003. Malarchuk continued to thrive on locker room antics. Once, as the Panthers’ owner was speaking to Dudley in his office, Malarchuk did a striptease behind him. Dudley tried to keep a straight face as Malarchuk laid down on a desk in the room directly across the hall, tucking his unmentionables between his legs, posing like a centerfold. “He had a joke every day,” Dudley says. “There was always something ridiculous.”

In 2004, Malarchuk was working with the Panthers’ farm team in San Antonio, Texas, during the NHL lockout. There, he met Joanie Goodley, a skating instructor at the team’s practice facility. It was impossible not to notice her, that blond hair, that movie star smile. In her early 40s, Joanie looked like she was still in her 20s. They danced around with glances for days until Malarchuk finally introduced himself. “He was the kind of person who would ask how you were and wait to hear the answer,” says Joanie. “He’s genuine like that with everybody.”

They married in 2006 and moved to a four-acre ranch in Fish Springs, Nev. Malarchuk’s youngest daughter, Dallyn (from his third marriage, which ended in divorce), lived nearby and visited often. Joanie and Malarchuk spent their days on the ranch, drinking in the summer heat, feeling the breeze sweep off the desert at night. Malarchuk would host makeshift rodeos in the arena they built out back, bucking in the sun. For laughs, he’d ride in nothing but his leather chaps, swinging a rope as his snow-white ass bounced in the saddle.

But it was during this time, when he seemed happiest, that Malarchuk began to fall apart. The common stresses of life built up, and Malarchuk found himself unable to manage them. It was a gradual decline. The anxieties started to grow — he had trouble sleeping, felt hyper at times, squirrelly. He fell into bouts of panicked breathing. The depression crept back, too. He didn’t want to get out of bed. Felt constantly tired, constantly grey inside. He worried about money, worried that his fourth marriage might crumble, worried that he couldn’t deal with his growing anxieties. He hadn’t been monitoring his medication and had stopped visiting the doctor regularly. He was angry at people for trying to understand, angry at himself for not being strong enough to control the feelings he’d been free of for years. “I was just so confused. I knew I was crazy — I wish I had a better word for that.”

He’d get into fights with strangers at bars, lashing out violently, trying to direct his rage somewhere, anywhere. Joanie had to leave several times, staying with friends or flying to her parents’ home in San Antonio. “I saw it getting bad, but there was nothing I could do,” she says. In anxious fits, Malarchuk told Joanie that he thought he might kill himself. (The combination of depression and OCD made him a high risk to commit suicide in an impulsive way.) When he was calm, he’d try to reassure her: “You know I’d never do that, right?” He told her to call Dudley if it ever seemed liked he’d lost control. Dudley was the only one who knew how to talk him off the trigger. That’s why, mid-season in 2007, Dudley shunned his duties as the assistant GM of the Chicago Blackhawks and made an emergency trip to Nevada. On the phone, Malarchuk had sounded worse than ever.

Dudley and Joanie managed to get Malarchuk to a doctor’s office in Reno. In the waiting room, Malarchuk excused himself to use the washroom, snuck down the stairs, hailed a passing car and hitchhiked to a bar one town over. By the time Dudley and Joanie caught up to him, Malarchuk was being escorted out of the bar by a police officer. He resisted arrest, cursing at the cop. He was thrown to the ground, kicked and cuffed and carried away.

When Malarchuk finally saw a doctor, the dosage of his prescription was increased fourfold. The pills made him feel like he was out of his skin. He doused the effects in alcohol. Joanie begged him to get help. Told him, through tears, that she’d leave if he didn’t. But he wouldn’t. Embarrassed by his inability to control his illness, Malarchuk armed himself with meds and booze and a cowboy’s resolve to fight the beast alone. The fight lasted a year.

The night before the shooting, Joanie stays in a motel. The past few days have been increasingly tense, their fights going in circles. She calls his cellphone in the morning — Oct. 7, 2008 — but he doesn’t answer. She returns to the ranch and finds the house empty. She calls for Malarchuk. No answer. She walks around to the back of the shed. He’s there, sitting on a stool, staring out toward the mountains. The rifle lies on the table in front of him.

“What are you doing out here?” Joanie asks him.

“I’m looking for rabbits,” he says. His hulking, shirtless frame is quivering. She pushes past his attempt to brush her off. An argument erupts that neither completely remembers. The only part that echoes clearly in her mind is the words he utters before reaching for the gun.

“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t shut my head off,” he says. “I can’t live with myself. I wish I was gone.”

He grabs the gun, pulling it under his chin. He thought maybe it was empty — he hadn’t counted the bullets. He just wanted to make a point, he’d say later — can’t remember what it was.

Before Joanie can scream, or cry, or reach out, a single gunshot echoes across the desert.

Consider a bullet, fired through a chin, ripping through the bone, muscles, fat and nerves that form the face of a desperate man. It spirals into the cavity behind the nose, blasting between the eyes that colour the way he sees the world, toward the grey matter that makes a life.

And it stops. As if placed there, perfectly, between his eyes, just before his brain. A .22-calibre message, like a scar across your neck — life is found or lost in the fragments of a second, the fractions of a millimetre.

The bullet that Malarchuk fired tore through his chin and tongue, shattered his teeth and fractured his palate. It was a short .22 — a regular one, doctors said, would have killed him. Instead, Malarchuk’s heart kept beating, and today he circles the net in Calgary’s Saddledome, setting up a shooting drill for the Flames’ backup goalie, Henrik Karlsson. Head coach Brent Sutter watches intently from the bench in the empty arena. In two weeks, the Flames will fail to qualify for the 2012 NHL playoffs, missing the post-season for the third straight year.

The cracks of shot after shot echo through the rink. Karlsson sprawls across the net, stretching to make a pad save. “Oh, ho, ho!” Malarchuk laughs, between chomps on his gum, belting out praise for his 28-year-old Swedish pupil.

Joanie sits alone in the upper level, just above the luxury boxes. It’s been nearly four years since Malarchuk opened his eyes in that Reno hospital. Four years since he was put in an induced coma for a week, since he tried to fight off the paramedics who came to help, since he pressed a towel up to the gushing wound in his chin, and beyond comprehension, uttered the words “Look what you made me do,” to Joanie, a dagger to her panicked, breaking heart.

Sitting in the Saddledome as the Zamboni clears the ice, Joanie considers that moment. “You literally think, ‘I probably could have stopped it,'” she says, through tears, catching her words. “And I didn’t.” She wipes the wet from her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I never talk about it.”

Later in the day, Joanie takes to the ice in a community rink, teaching young kids how to skate, something she often does while visiting from Nevada. Malarchuk sits in a viewing area above the ice, next to a row of bundled moms. His jaw juts forward as he tucks chewing tobacco inside his bottom lip. For nearly three hours, he watches Joanie drift across the ice, twirling and floating, guiding her tiny, wobbling students. He rarely takes his eyes off her. She skates under the window where he sits, spins around, and waves with a smile in her black Calgary Flames jacket. “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says quietly.

Malarchuk peppers the conversation with wild anecdotes, including a recent trip to the dentist, where he pulled out his own tooth without freezing to the delight of the office. He talks about time spent with Joanie and his children since the “accident.” His 19-year-old son, Jed, lives in Calgary and the two see each other often. His eldest daughter, Kelli, who lives in Australia, has also been diagnosed with OCD and finds comfort knowing that her dad understands what she is going through. Dallyn — already 14 — lives in Nevada and rides horses with him and Joanie.

“It’s amazing,” he says. “Amazing that I don’t have any eye, speech or brain damage.” Or, he adds, that he’s not dead. “It’s just lodged in my thick skull.”

His own struggle, he admits, is far from over. His family and friends still worry about him. Joanie gets anxious whenever his mood changes. Dudley, who’d “want to be in a foxhole with no one” but Malarchuk, calls his buddy often, checking in to make certain he’s okay. He sees a doctor regularly, making sure to stay one step ahead of the illness. But sitting by the window, watching Joanie, Malarchuk says he’s felt the tug of depression for the past week. “When I’m done today, I just can’t wait to curl up in a ball in my bed,” he says. “I just want to go away.”?

Malarchuk was deeply affected by the deaths of three NHL enforcers last year, all reported to have been tied to depression. The tragedies launched widespread discussions about mental health and substance abuse among hockey players. Malarchuk took Rick Rypien’s suicide particularly hard. He saw much of himself in the young, gritty player. When Rypien took a leave from the NHL last spring, Malarchuk thought about reaching out through his connections in the league. He wanted Rypien to know, at least, that he understood what he was going through. Rypien died before he had the chance. “I just wish I could have met with him,” he says softly.

Determined now to share his story, Malarchuk recently began speaking in Calgary high schools. Each time, students approach him after the assembly and tell him about their own scars. They thank him because he understands.

Malarchuk helps Joanie take her skates off after practice. He tucks them into her black bag and they walk out to his white Bronco pickup truck, with its Nevada plates and a “Canuck Ranch” sign on the side. After dinner, they head back to his tiny rented condo where the walls are lined with pictures of his days riding rodeo, including one of him clinging to a bronco that is trying to whip him to the ground. Above it hangs a sign: “The Cowboy Goalie.” There’s also a picture of the ranch, taken from the sky: the house, the riding arena, the barn — and the shed, long renovated. The memory of the things that happened there remains, always lingering, like the scar across his neck, like the bullet in his head. Each a constant reminder that — by fate, or God, or just damn luck — the Cowboy Goalie is still here. Clint Malarchuk is still holding on.

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