On January 26, 2010, the Caps and New York Islanders hooked up in a midseason game at Nassau Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The Caps were in the middle of what would become a franchise record 14-game winning streak, and the Islanders were hovering around the break-even point, and trying to climb their way up the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
Washington opened up a 4-1 first-period lead and coasted to a 7-2 victory. But late in that first frame, a gruesome injury occurred on the ice. With Washington on a power play, newly minted Caps captain Alex Ovechkin wound up and one-timed a slap shot from in tight, in the high slot. The puck was wobbling as Ovechkin struck it, and it elevated quickly and continued to wobble.
Islanders defenseman Jack Hillen – now a member of the Capitals – was parked at the top of the paint in front of Isles goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and Hillen’s blueline partner Andy Sutton was up a bit higher, trying to use his stick to hinder Ovechkin’s shot. Whether Sutton got a piece of it or not wasn’t clear, but the disc caught Hillen flush in the chin, opening up a gash.
“I think was off a face-off,” recalls Hillen. “The puck came around and we didn’t clear it. It kind of bounced out into the slot. I was standing actually to the left of the goal, probably by about three feet, so I didn’t think I was in harm’s way there. Sutton went down on one knee to block it; I think it missed him. The puck was on edge and it just came up and got me right in the jaw. I was stunned at first. I didn’t really feel it, I wasn’t in pain, I was just stunned when it hit me.”
Hillen went down in a heap, and blood began to pour forth from his jaw. The Isles’ training staff rushed out to attend to him.
“Five teeth got knocked out and they were all still sitting in the bone,” says Hillen. “The bone was actually sitting down in my throat with my teeth. They had to reach in and pull them out and put them back in place. They rushed me to the hospital and I had about three hours worth if surgery to fix it.”
As the team’s medical staff tended to him, Hillen’s thoughts were of his wife and how she was reacting to what had happened.
“My wife was not at the game, she was watching on TV,” he says. “She was pretty concerned. Once she saw me, she used the word ‘stoic.’ I didn’t feel anything. They put some morphine in me right away. I felt fine. So I just had the surgery that night. I never really felt the pain. Once she saw me everything was great. She made all the calls to the rest of my family.”
The toughness of hockey players is legendary. “Stoic” probably just scratches the surface. Us mortals (or this one, anyway) would buckle under the duress of much less trauma.
“I ended up with two plates and 12 screws in my jaw holding it together,” notes Hillen, “and not a lot of gum left. I remember the surgeon said it looked like a gunshot wound. I’m just really fortunate that it didn’t hit me in the throat and I’m really lucky no long-term damage was done.”
Thinking of five teeth together on the bone reminds one (or at least me) of five kernels of corn that remained together after detaching from the cob. It makes me shiver.
The media was informed that Hillen was taken to a hospital to be evaluated. Needless to say, he was sidelined for a while.
“It was like three weeks before the Olympic break,” remembers Hillen, of the timing of the injury. “So I missed those three weeks, and then I had the two weeks of the Olympic break.”
Hillen returned to action on March 2 against the Blackhawks, in the Islanders’ first game after the Olympic break. He skated just over 19 minutes in a 5-3 Islanders victory.
“I probably came back a little bit before I should have,” admits Hillen. “I didn’t quite have my conditioning back and I lost about 20 pounds because I wasn’t able to eat normally.
“I had to eat blended foods; I blended everything for about four weeks. I came back and started playing, and I just didn’t have the energy to get up the ice and play my game. Four weeks of eating liquid really takes a toll on you. By the end I was trying to blend peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was just really tough to get food in you.”
There is never a good time for any injury, but the puck that got Hillen came along at a most inopportune time. Playing in his first full season in the league, the undrafted defenseman from Colorado College had established himself as a top pair blueliner on the Island.
“I was playing with Andy Sutton and we were playing against the other teams’ top lines,” says Hillen. “I had a lot of confidence. I think that’s how it goes with a lot of players; give a player confidence and watch what his game can do. I was playing well, and then that happened. Those are the breaks. Those things happen. You’ve just got to battle back from it.”
Prior to the injury, Hillen had played 20 or more minutes in each of New York’s previous 19 games. He was a plus-5 in 49 games before the injury and was minus-10 in 20 games afterwards.
Despite the physical trauma of the injury, Hillen doesn’t think twice about getting in the way of oncoming shots and has had no lingering mental issues from that Ovechkin blast nearly three years ago.
“Mentally, I’ve never thought about it once,” he declares. “To this day, when I am playing and someone shoots from the point, I don’t worry about it. It was a freak accident. I got hit in the face before, but never like that. I’ve been hit in the face since then.
“It’s just one of those freak things where a guy with the shot of Ovechkin lines up and shoots it from the top of the circle and shoots it full speed and it hits you in the face. That doesn’t happen very often. It’s just one of those freak things.”
Has Hillen ever watched the video of his face absorbing Ovechkin’s slapper?
“I’ve seen it. It is what it is. I don’t watch it too often unless somebody shows me.”
No need to see it when you’ve lived it.