I know there might be a bullet in the rifle, but I press it against my chin anyway.
I don’t care.
I’m drunk as hell.
Coors Light. In the cans. Twenty down the hatch, maybe even 25 by this point in the afternoon.
My wife, Joanie, had needed a break from all the chaos that was going on — a quiet evening to gather her own thoughts and get some rest — so she spent the night with friends. But my brain keeps telling me she was with another man. Over and over and over again that thought clangs around in my brain. Each beer is like a pause button for my head. But the pauses don’t last long enough. So I figured I’d try something else. I decided to go out onto our ranch and shoot at some cans — head spinning all the while.
When Joanie gets home I’m just sitting on a bench behind our barn, screaming about who knows what.
I see her, and I look her in the eye, and then I reach for that rifle. With it pushing so hard against my jaw that it tilts my head upward, I yell some more.
“This is what I would love to do! This would solve everything.”
She’s sobbing. I keep going.
“You don’t know what it’s like to live with my brain. Everything would be so much better if I could just turn off my head. It would be so much easier on everyone.”
I’m staring Joanie dead in the eye when I say that, and then I just….
Pull the trigger.
I don’t feel anything after that.
It turns out that there is a bullet in the gun. And now it’s headed right for my brain — the brain that, over the course of 47 years, had proven to be among my worst enemies.
That bullet is directly on course to turn off my head.
The blood was everywhere.
It was pouring out of my mouth and streaming from my nose.
The bullet traveled up through my jaw, knocked out a couple of teeth, ricocheted through my nasal passages, and then kept on going until it got stuck in my skull.
Somehow I never lost consciousness. I never felt a bit of pain, either. So even in my drunken, blood-soaked state, I was immediately able to shift my focus to what I knew I needed to do next: beg my wife.
I begged and begged and begged. Not for forgiveness, or understanding, but for something simpler.
I begged her not to call the cops.
“I can take care of this. I can fix this. Don’t do this to me, Joanie. You can’t! Don’t do this.”
She wouldn’t listen. She just started dialing the phone.
I walked around to the front of the barn and got a towel for my chin, sitting down for a second and almost passing out. Then I went back behind the barn again, where I sat down on that bench and started begging Joanie for something else.
“Don’t tell them that I shot myself, then. Please! You can’t let them know. Tell them it was an accident. You have to do that for me. You have to tell them it was an accident. This would ruin me.”
At that time, October 7, 2008, I was coaching goalies for the Columbus Blue Jackets, and I’d already been given several second chances by employers over the years. I didn’t want to lose my job, what remained of my connection to the NHL. I couldn’t.
So I begged and I begged, and Joanie took pity on me and did what I asked.
When the police arrived, she was sitting right beside me. She wouldn’t leave because she was afraid that the cops would see the gun and just fire away. Or that I’d do something stupid, and then they’d kill me.
The officers kept telling her to move away. To leave my side.
But Joanie wouldn’t leave.
No matter what they said, she wouldn’t leave.
It wasn’t until things had calmed down a bit and the medics asked her about whether I’d been drinking, and if I was taking any medication, that she walked off for a moment to go inside the house.
“He was drinking. It looked like his head was going a mile a minute. He just started rambling.”
In an instant, she was hurrying back towards us with a determined look in her eye and a large plastic bag in her hands.
“This is what he’s taking,” she said, holding out the bag filled with prescription bottles.
Everyone looked down at all the different medications in there, and then just kind of remained silent for a second.
“Which one?” someone asked, finally. “Which of these has he taken today.”
And Joanie, she just looked at the guy for a moment, and then she pointed into the bag.
“Everything,” she said. “Everything in here. This whole bag.”
How I ended up as a 47 year-old man with a bullet in his head and bag full of prescription medications may go all the way back to my early childhood for all I know, but it definitely has a lot of its roots in what happened on the night of March 22, 1989.
I was the starting goalie for the Sabres at the time, and we were playing against the Blues at the old Aud in Buffalo. At first it was just like any other game. We were up 1–0 in the opening period, and I wasn’t seeing a ton of action in goal. Then the puck goes down into the corner to my right, and their guy gets to it immediately. I take a look over my shoulder and I can see one of their forwards rushing the net on the opposite side. Steve Tuttle. He’s a little ahead of our defenseman, so I know a pass is coming that way. I also know that I have to push hard off my post and get across to the other post as quickly as I can. Almost as soon as I get over there, though, Steve gets knocked over … and that’s when I see his skate come up.
I felt it hit my mask, but there was no pain, and I didn’t think much of it in that moment.
Then I saw the blood.
When you watch the video, it’s hard to really make out, but those first few squirts from my neck? We’re talking five or six feet in distance. That’s how far the blood flew.
I knew it was bad at that point.
But there was still no pain. And I was definitely expecting it to come, believe me, because within seconds the blood was just gurgling out of me.
So this is it, Clint. You are going to die. Tonight. Right here. In Buffalo.
That’s what I was thinking as I watched the blood splatter and stain that goalie crease.
But the weird thing was, as I’m thinking that, my main focus wasn’t on saving my life. Here are the two things that were on my mind….
First, I thought about something I’d been told going all the way back to peewee league: If you get hurt, don’t lay there on the ice like a weakling. Get up and go. Get yourself off that ice. Show that you’re tough.
So that was the first thing. I didn’t want to die on the ice, out there in front of all those people.
But the other thing I thought about was my mom watching the game back home in Calgary on the satellite dish.
I didn’t want my mum to see me die on TV.
Terry Gregson was reffing that night. I’ll never forget him skating over to me right after I went down. I saw his face go completely white, and then I just heard him screaming to anyone who could hear his voice.
“Get a stretcher out here now!”
Then a quick beat.
“He’s gonna die!”
After that, everything went quiet for me.
I just kept thinking, Wow, O.K. so I guess this is what it’s like when you pass away. No pain. No noise. Just … nothing.
Our head trainer, Jim Pizzutelli, jumped right out there to help stop the bleeding, and he knew exactly what he was doing. Jim had done a tour of duty over in Vietnam, so he had seen guys suffer gruesome injuries in his day. He pressed some gauze against the wound on my neck as hard as he could, and then he helped me skate over to the door behind the net so that I could get back to the trainers room.
As soon as I was up on that table, they basically just started cutting off all of my equipment with a big ol’ pair of scissors. And even though I thought I was going to die, that still kind of pissed me off a little bit. I specifically remember thinking, like, Hey, that’s my chest protector! I need that. It fits just right. That’s important. What are you doing?
Since the gash was on the right side of my neck, the doctor positioned me looking to my left so I wouldn’t see all the blood and get worked up by it, but I could tell it was everywhere. I wasted no time in asking if the team chaplain could come in and read me my last rites. I also talked to our equipment manager, Rip Simonick, and got him to call my mom back home in Calgary and tell her that I loved her.
Beyond that, I just kept telling myself not to close my eyes or go to sleep: Whatever you do, don’t pass out. Just don’t pass out. I thought it was inevitable, though, knowing how much blood I had lost.
After a few minutes of pressure and controlling the bleeding, one of our team doctors, Dr. Phelan, looked at me and smiled.
“Son, you’re gonna be alright.”
I didn’t believe him.
Three hundred stitches. That’s what they say it took to close up my neck.
When I woke up at Buffalo General after the surgery, one of my first thoughts was something along the lines of, Wow, Clint, you’ve got some fortitude to you … to make it out of that alive.
I was actually … proud of myself.
I never gave up, or allowed myself to close my eyes and pass out. Carotid artery cut. Jugular vein partially sliced. And at no point did I start crying or panic. I held it together, and I did what I had to do to survive.
The wound on my neck was covered by bandages at first, but when I was able to remove them and check out the scar, I was kind of blown away by how large it was. I was impressed. It was a big gash, probably six or 6½ inches.
All I could think about that first week was that I was going to bump it the wrong way, or hit it on something and then have blood start gushing out again.
It would be a long time before I stopped noticing or thinking about that scar. It developed this earth-worm-looking thing. I think they call it a keloid, but I always just called it “the worm.” And that’s literally what it looked like.
Imagine having a six-inch earthworm glued to your neck 24/7.
And then imagine having to shave your face without nicking that thing.
It was a total pain in the ass.
Ten days after my throat got slashed by Steve Tuttle’s skate, I was back on the ice.
I should’ve taken more time. But I wanted to prove everyone wrong, you know what I mean?
One of the first things I did when I got back into that Buffalo locker room was chat with Jacques Cloutier, the guy who had to go into the game after me and play in a goal crease stained with the 1.5 liters of blood that gushed out of my body that night. Jacques told me his legs were shaking as he skated out there a few moments after the rink guys had done their best to scrape up the blood from the ice.
Thankfully, by the time I got back out there at the Aud, they’d completely redone that crease and it was all clean. I had some moments that first week back where I flinched a little bit when guys would cut hard to the net, but mostly I was just feeding off all the love and support I was feeling from upstate New York. That really allowed me to get past those moments of fear and push forward and do what I had to do.
I just went with it, and I don’t think everything really sank in for me until that offseason, when the initial adrenaline rush of making an amazing comeback wore off. It was almost like I was still in shock for the rest of that season, and then when I got to the offseason, and had more time to be alone and process things, I fully realized how serious the injury was, and how fortunate I was to still be alive.
I began to struggle with all sorts of anxiety and depression and paranoia, and it just kept getting worse and worse. That’s when I really could’ve used some counseling, for sure.
And there was just….
There just wasn’t any counseling to be had.
You know what, though, I probably would’ve refused it if it had been available back then. I’d become a hero to my family, my friends and thousands of hockey fans around the world. I wasn’t about to jeopardize that by showing any weakness. I was also afraid that if I spoke up some doctor would diagnose me and find that I was crazy. Because, back then, I was really starting to feel like I was crazy. And I was scared to have someone confirm it. I was worried about losing my career.
Day to day, I was getting to a point where I couldn’t even function mentally, or distinguish real life from the things I was seeing in my head, but I still had enough presence to put on this big act to trick everyone into thinking, you know, Clint’s fine. I pressed forward and made jokes and horsed around and pretended everything was O.K. I didn’t talk about what I was going through.
I just clammed up and didn’t say a word to anyone about anything.
The nightmares started happening during that next season after the injury.
At first everything was kind of faint — just moments from that night in Buffalo when the skate came up. But as time passed, those dreams got more and more vivid.
I was afraid to go to sleep. That’s how bad it got.
And when I was able to fall asleep, it would only be an hour or two before I’d shoot straight up in bed because of how realistic the visual would be in my head.
The gash. The blood. The fear of taking my last breath. It would all be there waiting for me in super slow motion. So every night, at one point or another, I’d have to deal with feeling like I was going to die — and it would be the most realistic, terrifying version of that feeling imaginable. I was living that one moment over and over again.
I wasn’t able to get any rest, and so I wasn’t playing worth a damn. I was unable to stay focused and alert during practice. My eyes would burn constantly due to the lack of sleep.
Then I went to this Super Bowl party that year, and going into it I hadn’t slept for 10 straight days. So I left early and decided that I was going to get some sleep … regardless of what it took. I had these painkillers, and the label said not to take them with alcohol because it would make you drowsy.
I took a few extra painkillers and then downed a bottle of scotch.
Instead of dozing off….
My heart stopped.
It wasn’t a suicide attempt, but that’s what everyone thought.
I actually really did just want to sleep. I needed to sleep.
Shortly after the doctors revived me at the hospital, a psychiatrist came to my bedside.
“What’s going on with you, Clint?”
Everything came flooding to the surface at that point.
“I called him up just to see if his flight was on time and he said ‘I don’t know, I’m not at the airport. I can’t leave my room.'”
Not just details about the nightmares and insomnia, but other stuff I hadn’t told anyone about either. I just spilled my guts. Everything. The fact that I would clean things over and over again for no apparent reason, and that I was terrified to leave the house. And that when I did leave the house, I’d convinced myself that unless I left it in a certain way I was going to have a bad game. That I’d watch movies that dealt with infidelity and be sure that what I was seeing on the screen was happening to me in real life. That I’d have panic attacks about my wife cheating on me … and I didn’t know how to make them stop.
Those panic attacks had become so serious, in fact, that my chest would tighten up. A lot of people think they’re having a heart attack when a serious panic episode sets in, and I can totally relate to that. When you think things are happening around you and they’re not, and you know they’re not, but your mind can’t accept that they’re not … that’s when you start to panic. There were times when I thought the FBI was after me, or the CIA. I thought so many far-out things. Somewhere, deep down, you know they’re not true. But your mind isn’t convinced. Your emotions aren’t convinced. And that was the life I had been living.
In a flash, I was diagnosed with OCD and depression and anxiety.
I’d been afraid in the past to hear those words said to me, but at the time I actually felt … relieved.
When Richard Zednik had his throat slashed by a skate during a regular season game up in Buffalo in 2008 — same city, a full 19 years after my accident — I didn’t think it would have much of an impact on me.
Boy was I ever wrong.
By that time, I’d been dealing with my mental health issues for several years. There had been good days and bad days … and some really bad days, but I was surviving. And doing the best that I could. I’d even done some work I was very proud of as an NHL goalie coach.
But I had come to rely on medication to get me through, and by that point the pills I was taking weren’t working like they had in the past.
So Zednik happens, and immediately I’m getting bombarded with interview requests and reliving my accident all over again, and….
It didn’t go well for me.
All of a sudden I’m being asked to watch Richard’s injury again and again, and then my own. The whole time, I thought I was O.K., but it affected me on the inside, you know?
Something got triggered for me after that Zednik injury.
I started drinking heavily again. And self-medicating.
Before long, I found myself being checked into hospitals and mental health facilities. Not ever staying long enough to get any help or get my feet under me.
I was at this one treatment center in Sausalito, California, for a while in 2008 and 2009 and I probably broke out of there, I don’t know, two, three times.
But I didn’t have a car, so I’d be trying to escape on foot. I didn’t even have a wallet, all I had was some pocket change. I’d be looking for a payphone, because I didn’t have a cellphone or a credit card. I wanted to reach my wife to get me a plane ticket out of there. But, you know, by the time I’d reach her, the people from the treatment center would’ve already spoken with her.
She’d just say, “No I’m not sending you money. You’ve got to stay. You have to go back.”
So I would.
And then I’d try to break out again a day or two later.
A few weeks before I shot myself out by the barn at our ranch, I was in a really bad way and a friend of mine took me up to this hospital in Carson City. But I had visions of that place trying to lock me up forever, so I just left. I’d talked to a security guard beforehand, and he saw me walk out, so he called the cops on me.
And things just went downhill from there.
Next thing I know I’m crawling on my hands and knees through some bushes to escape. A helicopter passes overhead, and I think that’s someone looking for me. It was total paranoia.
I was losing grip on reality.
Within a matter of days, I’d down 25 beers and fire a rifle into my own chin.
I never passed out or lost consciousness after I shot myself in the face. In fact, they had to knock me out to get me onto the helicopter for life-flight.
Things go blank for me.
Aside from the details I mentioned above, I don’t really remember a ton more from that day. You’d have to ask my wife if you want to know more.
The doctors kept me in a medically induced coma for a full week after that. When I woke up, Joanie was the first person I saw.
“The doctors told me he was highly intoxicated, so they were going keep him unconscious so he didn’t go through withdrawal during recovery.”
She told me that she loved me. And I knew that I loved her. That I couldn’t have been happier to see here there, along with my mom, in that hospital room. All of us alive, and breathing, and together. But there was some bittersweetness there too, that’s for sure.
Months later, Joanie reminded me of something I said to her right after I pulled the trigger. I guess I had blocked it out of my mind back then.
“See what you made me do!”
I actually said that to her.
I blamed Joanie. For everything. The person who had stood by me through the worst times imaginable, and never left, and always remained supportive … I blamed.
So back there by the barn, after I fired the gun, I looked her in the eye, and said those words.
I realize now, when I think back on doing that … just how sick I was.
I was ill. I was very ill.
And I was lashing out at the one person closest to me. That much couldn’t be more clear to me now.
The scar from where the .22 short-caliber bullet entered my chin is only about two inches from the base of the scar left over from that night on the ice in Buffalo. They’re reminders of how I’ve been hurt over the years, and how I’ve struggled to make it through. But they also serve as reminders of those I’ve hurt along the way.
And get this, after all of the stuff I’ve just told you — the nightmares, the panic attacks, the running away from evil helicopters, the gunshot — it wasn’t until I got out of the hospital after the shooting and checked into a long-term rehabilitation facility that someone put two and two together and began assessing me for post traumatic stress disorder.
At first, I wasn’t having it. I didn’t want to hear it.
This psychologist just wouldn’t quit talking about that night in Buffalo, and how it must’ve caused some trauma. I remember she kept using that word again and again: trauma. I was, I don’t know … insulted. I kept going on about how I was the man in Buffalo, and how they love players with real toughness and grit up there. It was like, What do you know, lady? I’m a hero in Buffalo. They love me up there. Do you understand the amazing comeback I made in that town? Back on the ice after 10 days? Come on!
I fought it like you wouldn’t believe. But she wouldn’t quit.
Eventually she gave me a book to read about how animals respond negatively to traumatic situations, and that’s how she got through to me. I’m a rancher. I love animals. I’ve got horses and goats and dogs. And so, for whatever reason, that made everything click for me.
I thought back to those first two years after the accident, and how that’s when everything started to get really bad for me. The OCD became over the top, and the panic attacks set in, and the nightmares escalated. And….
It all made sense.
Once I accepted that the PTSD combined with my alcoholism was probably what led to everything else, I could finally process things and move forward.
I could also, I realized, help lots and lots of people at the same time.
These days I speak to groups all over the country about mental health issues. I tell them that there is no shame in needing help, or in asking for that help in whatever way you are able. I get emails and Facebook messages every day from people who have heard me speak, or have read my book, and when I’m speaking about these issues or responding to those messages, I feel like I’m on top of the world. Just knowing that I might be able to help someone in their journey through life is enough to make me so happy.
I still struggle with mental health issues, I fully admit that. I sometimes even still get those nightmares where I see Steve Tuttle’s skate come up in super slow motion and slash my throat. (My last one was about six months ago, if you’re wondering.) And when I’m not out speaking to groups, or things just kind of slow down, I can get sad. But it’s not the deep, deep depression like what I used to experience. And, in fact, maybe I’m just a normal person who struggles with a down day, or with distractions, or the everyday upsetting things in life. You know, like the sun sets at 4:45 or something in the middle of winter, and then I kind of get a bit depressed….
Just like everybody else in the world.
And when challenging times do crop up, Joanie is there — by my side … still, after all that has happened.
We take it day by day, and I think we’re doing pretty good, all things considered.
For the longest time, I really thought my sole purpose in life was to be an NHL hockey player. It’s all I ever wanted to be. My path through life couldn’t have been more clear: NHL player, and then NHL coach. That was pretty much it.
Now, as a 56-year-old guy who has been through a ton, I realize that my life in hockey was really mainly all about gaining a platform for what I’m doing now.
For helping people get through tough times.
And the same goes for my struggles with mental health issues. I know what my purpose is now. I really do.
In the past, I used to question God.
Why have you given me this disorder?
Why the nightmares?
Why do you allow me to become so depressed, so anxiety-ridden?
Well, now I know why.
And, sure, maybe it wasn’t always pretty, or easy to deal with everything I’ve dealt with over the years. Maybe I wouldn’t have chosen to face those challenges if given the choice.
But now, thanks to how I’ve been able to help people, I can truly say that I’m O.K. with what I’ve been through. All of it. I really am.
I’m not glad about it, necessarily. But I’m O.K. with it.
And, through everything … I’m still here.