FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 13, 2023
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: WHY JUSTIN TAYLOR REFUSES TO STAY DOWN
Justin Taylor nearly lost his left eye after an injury in 2017, but channeled the adversity to launch himself toward an all-time ECHL career.
By Chris Cadeau for K-Wings.com
KALAMAZOO, MI – In order to fully appreciate Justin Taylor’s dedication to professional hockey that’s been on display for the City of Kalamazoo for over a decade, you had to be inside Wings Event Center on the night of April 23, 2017.
The K-Wings (38-30-1-3) surged into the 2017 Kelly Cup Playoffs - going 14-6 down the stretch to secure the No. 4 seed in the ECHL’s Central Division - now locked in possibly the franchise’s most grueling playoff series in its 48-year history versus the Brabham Cup-winning Toledo Walleye (51-17-2-2).
In the rivalry-fortifying seven-game series, fans witnessed a 2-0 Toledo series lead erased, a physicality level that exceeded boiling points throughout (hat tip to K-Wings defenseman Ben Wilson), and the home team prevailed in each game.
But what occurred at the eight-minute mark of game-six’s third period, as Kalamazoo worked with a 4-2 lead, almost prevented Taylor from setting ECHL marks and shattering most K-Wings all-time records. Almost.
“We were heading to the power play looking to slam the door shut,” Taylor said.
And then a one-timer.
“I got the puck, and we were moving it well,” said Kyle Bushee, former K-Wings defenseman. “I fired a one-timer, and the guy in the bumper position made a desperation slide to try to block it and it hit right off his stick into (Taylor’s) face."
Writhing on the ice
One of the most reliable aspects of Taylor’s career is his durability. Yet, everyone in the arena knew this time was different.
“So the whistle blows, and I didn’t think much of it because Tayls is one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever played with,” Bushee said. “We get him to his feet and head towards the bench. That’s when (former K-Wings head coach Nick Bootland) looks at me and I said, ‘I think it’s his nose,’ because of all the blood.”
“And I remember Tayls saying in a high pitch, almost desperate scream, saying, ‘It’s my eye. It’s my eye.’”
For Bootland, Taylor’s head coach for nearly his entire career at that point, the concern mounted the moment No. 93's skates fluttered violently, while face down on the ice.
“Tayls has been a battle-tested warrior his entire career, and I’ve seen him get hit with pucks so many times that you knew when it happened it was very serious due to his response,” Bootland said. “Your thoughts shift immediately from the game to hoping he’s okay.”
As expected, the energy in the building dissipated into mounting concern from the moment of impact until Taylor disappeared into the tunnel with now-retired K-Wings trainer Scott Allison.
“It was the worst injury I’ve ever dealt with,” Allison said. “Tayls never goes down on the ice and kicks his feet, and once back in the training room, it was just a relief that his left eye was still there, but we still had no idea how bad it really was.”
Taylor recalls the moment Allison first removed the towel to assess the injury.
“He pulls it away to see where the impact was and his face was shocked like, ‘wow, it looks like you got ran over by a cheese grater with a cement truck.”
With their son Jonah just months old, Taylor’s wife Kelsey also knew this time was different based on her husband’s post-injury mannerisms and said her first interaction with Justin in the training room was as expected.
“A friend took Jonah, and I raced down there,” Kelsey said. “He was under the impression he could just get stitched back up and be out there for the rest of the game.”
Yet, despite the bleeding and swelling that had rendered Taylor almost unrecognizable, Taylor acknowledged he needed medical attention but wouldn’t let the medical staff help him undress.
“For some reason, I refused to let the medical people cut my gear and jersey off,” Taylor said. “I said, ‘No, I can undress myself,’ which was a big no-no because apparently, I could have lost my eye.”
The medical team waited patiently for Taylor to undress. The forward then headed to the hospital without sight in his left eye and waited for answers.
“It was the most concerning injury of my career, and the worst part was the length of the unknown,” Allison said.
Upon getting to the hospital it took hours for Taylor, his family and the coaching staff to understand the extent of the damage to Justin’s eye.
Nick Bootland and Scott Allison stayed with the family until doctors asked them to leave in the early hours of the morning.
It was determined that the deflected puck had broken two bones, his orbital and jawline, but the fear was that his left eye’s retina was detached.
Finally, after over 10 hours of waiting, it was determined that there was minor damage to the retina and he was released around 11 a.m. the following morning.
“Our friends picked him up the next day at the hospital,” Kelsey said. “And from there, we had appointment after appointment.”
Over the next few weeks, the swelling started to subside, and with it came the blessing of limited eyesight. A huge step forward toward recovery. Next was a repair of his broken facial bones and much-needed plastic surgery on May 9, 2017.
But there was still no guarantee that career-ending sight loss wasn’t in the cards.
“It was really uncertain,” Taylor said. “I was going to the eye doctor four times a week, and they said it was 80/20 with the cataract at the beginning and I was experiencing permanent pupil dilation in the left eye.”
The doctors' appointments continued throughout the offseason and Taylor’s eyesight rapidly progressed. In mid-August, Taylor was cleared to drive and resume hockey activities.
Taylor’s litmus test
It was only a few weeks after the May surgery that Taylor started his comeback, and Bootland recalled the acute uncertainty in the process but also Taylor’s certainty of return.
“From surgery on, there was nothing but a positive outlook,” Bootland said. “Tayls expressed, ‘I'm doing this, I'm playing again.’ I knew that his wife was on board, and they wanted to make this happen for him. And, you know, at that point, it was like, ‘Okay, let's just create the best plan we can to get him back to doing what he wants to do.’”
But there was only one test for Taylor that would truly let him know that his career was back on track. Park himself right back out in front of the net and have Bushee fire away.
Only Bushee was still suffering from “mental scar tissue.” Knowing that it was his shot that almost ended it all for Taylor.
“Basically, we went out on the ice with a bucket of pucks (in late August), and (Taylor) was like, ‘we're gonna we're gonna stay out here until you get over this,’” Bushee said. “I want you to just rip them at me.”
The drill proved to be therapeutic for both players.
“Just a puck coming at you at 80, 90, 100 mph, and you have a split second to react, that’s what we both needed to let us know, ‘hey, you and I can both still do this,’” Taylor said.
The fact that Taylor needed this to feel ready to compete again doesn’t surprise anyone who knows him. Especially the ones who raised him.
“Since he was a little boy, he’s always just focused on what he wants and goes and does it,” said Christine, Tayor’s mother.
“He’s never been afraid to sacrifice his body for a win and that goes all the way back to juniors,” said Jedd, Taylor's father. “And he’s accomplished so much because he keeps putting the effort in and he’s most importantly having fun.”
The drill served as a confidence booster for both players, as they would go on to set career highs for goals scored the following season. To this day, the only way you can tell that the injury had an effect on Taylor is some scaring on his face and his patented tinted visor.
And what Taylor wants to do is simple: compete to win it all for Kalamazoo.
“It all goes back to my dad,” Taylor said. “It's kind of like the Taylor badge of honor. You get knocked down, you always get back up. Because if you don’t win the last game of the season and become a champion, it’s all for nothing.”
Justin Taylor currently ranks No. 1 in Kalamazoo Wings franchise history for goals, points and games played - No. 3 in ECHL history for games played - and has never scored less than 20 goals in the 11 previous seasons he’s suited up for the K-Wings. Justin claims his knee injury suffered in 2019 was a harder recovery than the eye, and he was an all-star selection that season with 21 goals in just 35 games played. Taylor returned to the ice the following season, notching 20 goals and 39 points in 49 games played with a call-up to the AHL.
The Kalamazoo Wings are a professional hockey team located in southwest Michigan that has been a staple in the Kalamazoo, MI professional sports landscape since 1974. The K-Wings compete in the ECHL and are the AA affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets and the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters. Kalamazoo plays their 36 regular season home games at Wings Event Center from October through April.