Ex-goalie Malarchuk one tough cowboy

It had graced the east wall of our garage since 1993, had persevered longer than any weed-whacker I’d owned. But when my wife painted a couple of months ago, she took down the poster of the “Cowboy Goalie,” the one showing Clint Malarchuk in a black Resistol and a Las Vegas Thunder jersey holding a stop sign along with his big goalie’s stick.

“The Puck Stops Here” it said.

When my wife took down Clint’s poster, there weren’t any vulcanized rubber smudges behind it. The red light in our garage never came on. (The white light didn’t come on either, until I finally got around to changing the bulb.)

So it wasn’t that long ago that I had been thinking about Clint Malarchuk, one of the true good guys of old Las Vegas sports, and then a buddy emailed the link to the new documentary about him, one of those ESPN Films “30 for 30 Shorts,” and then I thought about him some more.

The film, directed by Steven Cantor, lasts 11 minutes, 18 seconds. (You can see it here: http://espn.go.com/30for30/shorts). It’s a powerful 11:18. But if you are the squeamish type, you might want to turn away from 2:19 until 2:46. That’s the part when Clint, while tending goal for the Buffalo Sabres in 1989, gets his jugular vein slashed by a skate and nearly bleeds to death on the ice against the St. Louis Blues.

“Please take the camera off,” the announcer says with a sickening groan.

Clint thought he was going to die. He had one of the equipment guys call his mother, who was watching on TV. “Tell her I love her,” he said. Then he asked for a priest.

A lot of people refer to the incident as the most gruesome injury in sports history. Clint survived it, thanks to more than 300 stitches and the Sabres equipment guy with the fat fingers using them to stem the flow of blood (sort of), and also because Clint is from Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, and people from Grande Prairie are known as tough SOBs.

In a matter of days, Malarchuk returned to the ice. He was never quite the same. The documentary shows him spearing an opponent and then slamming his stick against stuff upon leaving the ice.

Let the record show that Clint Malarchuk was not above spearing an opponent who had trespassed in his crease. But I never saw him throw his stick in anger when he was with the Las Vegas Thunder of the old International Hockey League. Not once. In fact, he was the one guy reporters would go to when the team was going badly.

You could count on Clint to be affable and insightful, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of how many Peoria Riverman or Milwaukee Admirals or Fort Wayne Komets were infringing on his workplace.

He was so popular, he became the Thunder’s coach. Eventually they retired his jersey. A big No. 30 was hoisted to the Thomas & Mack Center rafters. His was the face of the franchise for the six years it lasted.

The Zoloft helped.

Clint had suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since he was a little boy. But when he was resurrecting his career with the IHL’s San Diego Gulls, coach Rick Dudley told him they had stuff you could take for OCD.

So he did, and for 15 years, everything was good, Clint said, until 2008, until Richard Zednik of the Florida Panthers suffered an injury not unlike his. And then it all came flooding back, and then forget about the Peoria Rivermen and the Milwaukee Admirals and the Fort Wayne Komets being in his crease. It was like having the Philadelphia Flyers, the notorious Broad Street Bullies, between his pipes.

There was depression and there was alcohol and there were prescription drugs, which is never a good combination, and then one day Clint got into an argument with his wife while shooting rabbits up on their ranch near Reno, where Clint is a horse dentist (he’s also the Calgary Flames goalie coach during hockey season).

And then there was a gunshot, and now Clint has a bullet in his head.

At the time, everybody called it an accident — Clint still does — but his wife later called it a suicide attempt. The authorities weren’t sure what to call it. The doctors called it posttraumatic stress to having had his throat slashed against the Blues in 1989, and a tough guy’s reluctance to deal with it.

And though he’s still a tough guy from the Canadian prairie who wears a cowboy hat and chews on a toothpick and lives like the Marlboro Man up there on his ranch, Clint now speaks at high schools and tells the tough kids that if they are feeling down and depressed, it’s OK to seek help.

When we spoke the other day, 52-year-old Clint Malarchuk sounded great. He said he had just treated a couple of equine patients with those giant tongs. There didn’t seem to be any Rivermen or Admirals or Komets standing in his crease.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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