In the Monday Night Football clash between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest on the field and still remains in critical condition as of Wednesday afternoon.
While Monday night's events were rare and unprecedented in football, an eerily similar play shocked the NHL almost 25 years ago.
During the 1998 Western Conference final between the St. Louis Blues and Detroit Red Wings, Blues blueliner Chris Pronger collapsed after being struck in the chest by a slap shot. After trying to get up after the initial hit, Pronger fell back to the ice.
“I remember stepping out to block the shot, it hit me right in the heart,” Pronger recalled on Wednesday’s episode of “It stung, as only a slap shot can. …In my head, I’m like ‘Get to the bench.’ I blacked out on the ice, and you can see I kind of got up and you can see I stumbled a little bit, take two stumbly strides, and then collapsed on the ice.
“I woke up and I was staring straight up at the banners and the retired numbers. I looked over to my right, to our bench, and I could see guys were crying and not really knowing what was going on. My shirt was cut open with scissors, everything was wide open, and I was just looking around going ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’
“It was surreal, for sure. Until you’ve been in the situation and it’s happened to you, it’s really hard to describe.”
Both sports are so physical that some kind of injury is almost expected for every player, but when Pronger was asked if he expected an injury this serious could happen, he knows there’s a distinct difference.
“I don’t think like this,” Pronger said. “You might get hurt, you might get injured. That type of stuff. But I don’t think you’re thinking about having a type of event such as commotio cordis.”
Commotio cordis occurs when a person suffers a blow directly to the area directly over the heart during a critical time of their heartbeat. It disrupts the heart enough to cause cardiac arrest. It has to happen within a 40-millisecond window of the person’s heartbeat cycle and the rarity of it happening again is why the defenseman was willing to return so quickly.
“That was one of the things that we talked about before playing,” Pronger recalled. “Well, I only know one way to play. I can’t just dip a toe in, I’m either all in or I’m all out. And that was part of the questions. ‘Can I play physical? Can I hit? Can I do all the things that are going to happen in a playoff game, especially in 1998?’ And [the specialist] gave a full checkmark, and said ‘No, you can do whatever you want to do. This is literally a one-off, the chances of this happening again are probably greater than you winning the lottery.’”
Pronger went on to play less than 48 hours after collapsing on the ice, and because that game went into overtime, logged a team-leading 41:35 time on ice. Unfortunately, there are major differences between what happened to Hamlin and what happened to Pronger.
“I lost consciousness, but I never stopped breathing. They never had to do CPR, they didn’t have to restart my heart. They didn’t have to do any of that stuff. In this instance, there was a significant amount of time without breathing, they’re doing CPR, they’re hitting him with the paddles. They’re doing everything they can to keep him alive. And as a player, seeing that, it only takes one guy playing at 50 percent and the risk of injury drastically increases, especially in a physical sport like football. I think they made the right call.”
Pronger went further with the distinction between the two incidents, saying that he could have skated off if they let him, instead of being stretchered off, being alert enough to do so.
Now 48-years-old, the legendary defenseman went on to play for 13 more seasons, won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015, and now lives a healthy life in St. Louis. The whole sports world is hoping that Hamlin can experience the same full life off the field that Pronger has enjoyed following the scary injury.
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