Courtesy: Pam Shebest
KALAMAZOO, MI — As Justin Taylor lay on the ice after taking a puck to the face last season, he knew he was injured, really injured.
“Usually if I have to get helped off the ice, my parents always said I’m probably really hurt,” the Kalamazoo Wings centerman said.
“I’ve never done it before and when my parents heard that and knew I needed help, they were definitely a little bit worried and so was I.”
Taylor had reason to be worried.
A blast by teammate Kyle Bushee deflected off a Toledo defenseman’s stick and into Taylor’s eye.
After being helped off the ice, “We waited for the ambulance with the medical staff (at Wings Event Center) that tried to keep me calm,” Taylor said. “I had my wife (Kelsey), my son and a couple of my friends from Canada down talking to me.
“It was a blessing in disguise that my friends were here because we had a new-born and had just lost a close family friend. It was a double-whammy of all things but the supporting cast was here.”
The injury happened during Game 6 of the ECHL first-round playoffs and although the K-Wings won that game, they lost one of their leading scorers for Game 7, a 3-1 loss at the Toledo Walleye.
“You never want to see that, especially Game 6 in the playoffs,” Bushee said of the injury. “We had so much momentum going in that game but we lost such a big piece, that was my concern: First, Tayles’ health but, two, it was such a big hole we lost for Game 7.”
The injury proved to be a turning point not only for Taylor but for Bushee as well.
“Before Tayles got hit in the face, we both used to wear our visors tilted,” Bushee said. “I thought a fluke like that, not only is your career done but I’m engaged and getting married soon. Tayles is married and has a kid.
“Your quality of life is in question. There is something we can control: how we wear our visors.”
The correctly worn shield proved to be a career-saver for Bushee this season.
“This is the first year I’ve ever worn my visor correctly and it’s the first year in my career, the first three times, that I’ve been cut and had stitches in pro hockey,” he said.
“I played almost 580-some games without ever getting stitches with my visor like a moron, and I wear it correctly now and I’ve been cut for 30 stitches this year.
One of those three proved extremely fortunate.
“It was a skate that actually hit my visor and deflected it,” said Bushee, sporting stitches and a black eye following Sunday’s 3-2 win over Wichita.
“My career’s over if I don’t have my visor down. It could have been a lot worse.”
Stitches, plates, surgery
Taylor was not sure if his own career was over after the injury.
At the hospital, doctors waited to see if they had to perform emergency surgery on his eye before deciding on a course of action.
K-Wings coach Nick Bootland stayed at Bronson Methodist Hospital with Taylor until early morning.
“There are bigger things than hockey.,” Bootland said “It was a devastating loss for our hockey team, not having him for Game 7 when he’s your leading scorer and top centerman and a guy who minute munches.
“But that wasn’t our concern. Our concern was how he was going to feel and, to be honest, if he was going to be able to see or if there were going to be any problems with his vision.”
Taylor not only was stitched up, but had three plates inserted in his face.
“A lot of stitches inside and out, underneath my eye and the inside of my mouth,” he said.
“I have three plates in my face: an orbital cheek fracture, jaw fracture and one a little bit above my teeth. I didn’t lose any teeth — my mother’s happy — but brushing my teeth became a little bit of a task.”
Taylor then went under the knife about 22 days after the incident.
“(Plastic surgeon) Dr. (Raghu) Elluru took over,” Taylor said. “Since the bones were already beginning to fuse together, he had to re-break my face and then reset everything.
“It was pretty painful surgery. It was seven weeks on soft or liquid foods and I lost about 19 pounds. With a newborn baby at home, dogs to take care of, wife depending on me. She was just unbelievable through it all.”
He also was on restricted activity, received eye drops every day and was not permitted to drive.
The good news is that Elluru “said everything went well and my body healed well,” Taylor said.
“He said in 15 or 20 years if I want to have my face done and get everything prim and proper he’d be happy to do it for me. That’s good to hear.”
On the road to healing
After the incident, Taylor said he had 65-20 vision.
“By the end of all my therapy about three months later, I got down to 20-20. I have a permanent pupil dilation in my left eye which will be forever.”
Once Taylor’s eyesight returned, he had no doubt he’d be back on the ice.
“When you get told you’re legally blind and you can’t physically drive any more, you hear that and it’s like ‘Uh oh. This is worse than I thought.’
“It was emotional because you have that little bit of doubt, but my wife said ‘If you’re going to go for it, you better put it all on the line. You can’t go in with doubt. Either you’re going to be a hockey player or not.’”
Taylor began training moderately the third week of June with teammate Ben Wilson.
“He and I would take my son and dogs out for a walk and do all the trails in the area,” he said. “We steadily increased the work load after that.”
The biggest difference is that now he not only wears his shield properly, but it is tinted to protect his eyes from the bright light.
“It was very hard to get used to,” he said. “I don’t generally wear my visor down. It was probably a good three weeks skating with the guys who were in town and working with (strength and conditioning coach) Mark Olson to finally feel I could wear this.
“It was a pain in the butt having to wash it all the time and take care of a visor all of a sudden. I think I’ve adjusted pretty well.”
He has adjusted well enough to become a point-a-game guy, leading the K-Wings with eight goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 20 games and is on pace to have the best season in his eight years with the K-Wings.
He is also 18 games shy of tying Mike Wanchuk for third most games played in franchise history. And with his goal on Sunday, Taylor has 145, tying him with Tom Milani for sixth all-time in K-Wings history, three shy of tying Neil Meadmore for fifth.
There was some trepidation after the incident for both Taylor and Bushee.
“As a player you try not to feel responsible because it wasn’t on purpose and was a fluke, but you second guess if you could have done anything differently to not have that happen,” Bushee said.
When the two were back on the ice practicing during the summer, Bushee said he was a bit apprehensive.
“What’s funny is I did have a little bit of a mental block when we started (practicing) and he was standing in front (of the net) and I’m like ‘Here we go again.’
“It’s just one of those things. After time, it’s not even really a thought any more. You don’t wish it on anyone. It took a little bit to get over it, absolutely.”
Taylor said he told Bushee not to worry about hitting him.
“I told him, ‘Dude, dump the bucket and just start hammering as hard as you can. I’m not even gonna move.
“I’m gonna follow it with my stick and if I touch it, I touch it and get used to it like that. That way you get rid of that icky feeling of ‘Oh my god, I hit my teammate in the face.’”
Bootland was not surprised Taylor decided to continue playing hockey.
“I feel that he is a hockey player, he wants to be a hockey player,” the coach said. “I know that he still wants to get to the next level after being here for five consecutive years.
“I think he’s still hungry and he takes care of his body like he wants to play at the next level.”
And if the injury were a career-ender, Taylor said he would be talking to Michael Oswald, vice president of food, beverage and entertainment for Greenleaf Hospitality Group about a job so he could stay involved with hockey in some way.