(Author’s note: This will be the first of our weekly series highlighting a Chicago Blackhawks player from seasons’ past. Up first is 1997 Calder Trophy winner and 2003 Masterton Trophy winner Bryan Berard, who spent a year in Chicago following one of the most frightening injuries in NHL history.)
Bryan Berard’s stint in Chicago was brief: he played just 58 games with the team during the 2003-04 NHL season, his lone campaign with the Blackhawks. But simply being on an NHL roster at any point after March 11, 2000 was a small miracle for Berard, whose career was forever altered in an on-ice incident involving he and Ottawa Senators youngster Marian Hossa (yes, that Marian Hossa).
Berard was drafted No. 1 overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 1995 NHL Draft but debuted with the New York Islanders one year later after requesting a trade out of Ottawa. He scored eight goals and added 40 assists while playing in all 82 games of the 1996-97 season, earning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Two seasons later, he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and was just one month away from a second postseason appearance when his career path collided with en errant Hossa high stick.
This story from Sports Illustrated has the grisly details of what happened to Berard that night, when Hossa’s follow-through from a wild slapshot attempt caught Berard square in the eye, knocking parts of it onto the ice. There’s also a YouTube video of the incident and immediate aftermath, thankfully in standard definition so the horrifying details of what happened aren’t clearly visible.
In the aforementioned SI story, Berard detailed the moments during and after the incident:
Berard felt as if he’d been kicked in the eye by a skate blade. Lying on the ice, he opened that eye but saw only darkness. Blood was everywhere, and someone gave him a towel. He was helped from the ice and a wave of nausea swept over him. “Guys were looking at me, and I could tell by their expressions that it was bad,” Berard recalls. “It was like the eye exploded.”
Berard was rushed to a hospital where multiple operations were performed within 24 hours of the injury. Doctors put the chances of recovering eye sight at a slim five percent, although a future hockey career had taken a backseat to Berard’s long-term health at that point. The next day, among a steady flow of visitors, Berard got a visit from someone he didn’t know too well: Hossa.
Hossa teared up as he went to the bedside to speak to Berard. In any language it would be hard to find the right words. In a second language, in an adopted country, to a man he had never spoken with, it was impossible. Hossa’s tears became his words. Berard, still calm, told Hossa he bore him no hard feelings. Amazingly, he didn’t. “He said, ‘It was an accident, a freak accident. It could have been me doing it to you,’” Hossa remembers. “He was a very strong man in the hospital. Very strong.”
The end of that SI story, which was published on March 12, 2001, talks about the injury settlement Berard received after announcing his retirement that February. After six different operations on his eye, Berard’s vision was so poor that it could not be measured, let alone reach the 20/400 threshold mandated by NHL by-laws.
But Berard’s career didn’t end there.
He missed the rest of the 1999-00 season and sat out the entire 2000-01 NHL season. However, a seventh operation improved the vision in Berard’s right eye to 20/600, and a special contact lens improved it to the league minimum of 20/400. Berard gave back his $6 million injury settlement and tried out for the Rangers, ultimately earning a $2 million contract for the 2001-02 NHL season.
After spending the following season with the Boston Bruins, Berard signed a one-year deal in Chicago for the 2003-04 NHL season. Berard was one of the few highlights on an otherwise woeful Blackhawks team that finished one point clear of the league basement with 59 points. Berard was the second-leading scorer on the team that year, scoring 13 goals and adding 34 assists for the second-highest point total of his career.
Berard’s comeback culminated with him receiving the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, annually awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.”
He was supposed to spend a second season in Chicago, signing a one-year deal to keep him around for the 2004-05 NHL season. But a lockout wiped out that entire schedule. Berard then spent two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a final NHL season back with the Islanders, and then spent a year in the KHL before retiring — this time on his own terms — in 2009.
One final note on Berard: in the featured photo for this article, he’s wearing No. 3. During that season, Blackhawks legend Keith Magnuson died in a car accident. Out of respect for Magnuson, Berard switched to No. 4 for the rest of the season, and Magnuson’s No. 3 was not worn again in Chicago before the team retired his number in 2008.