Capitals defenseman Tom Poti is recovering after eye injury

By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; D01

It was something Tom Poti had done thousands of times over the course of 838 NHL games: As Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri prepared to shoot in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Washington Capitals defenseman positioned himself between the puck and his goal, smack in the middle of harm's way.

This time, though, the puck didn't sail past Poti or deflect off his shin pad. It pinballed almost straight up in the air off teammate Shaone Morrisonn's outstretched stick and into the side of Poti's face.

The impact left him temporarily blind in his right eye and, in the moments immediately after, "really, really scared" for his future.

"There was a mirror in the trainer's room," Poti said. "I looked in the mirror. Both my eyes were wide open, but I couldn't see out of the one on the right." An examination Wednesday revealed that his vision has returned to 20/20 and that he's regained full movement of the eye. Doctors expect that he'll be able to resume playing next season without any lingering issues.

"He was extremely lucky," said Capitals physician Ben Shaffer, who is also the president of the NHL Team Physicians Society. "With an injury like that, you worry about rupturing the globe. . . . There's no coming back from that."

Slowing the process of Poti's recovery in recent days has been a pair of minor setbacks: first an allergic reaction to the eye drops he had been prescribed, then an infection to the tissue surrounding the eye. Poti, who suffers from severe food allergies and carries an EpiPen with him at all times, suspects his condition may have contributed to his eye swelling shut for four days.

The swelling and itching -- not to mention a two-inch gash that, as he said, has strangers wondering, "What the hell happened to that guy?" -- has further complicated a hectic time in the veteran defenseman's life. His wife, Jessica, is 39 weeks pregnant with the couple's first child.

"Yeah, we kind of have a lot going on," he chuckled from his Cape Cod, Mass., home, which is in the final stages of extensive renovations.

Poti knows he's fortunate to be able to laugh now. Had the puck ricocheted just half an inch higher, the 33-year-old, who was not wearing a visor, might have suffered permanent vision loss, his career perhaps finished.

Fortunately for Poti, his face took the brunt of the blow from the puck, a 5 1/2 - to 6-ounce disc of vulcanized rubber. He suffered fractures to the zygomatic bone, the orbital floor and the orbit, and his eye socket was significantly damaged, Shaffer said.

As soon as the puck struck him, Poti dropped his stick and skated off to the bench while play continued around him. Shaffer, who travels with the team during the playoffs, evaluated the damage and stitched up the gash. About an hour after the Capitals' 4-1 loss, Shaffer tended to Poti on the bus ride to Montreal's suburban airport, then on the 1 1/2 -hour flight to Dulles International Airport on the team's charter.

It was easily the worst travel experience of Poti's life.

"I was feeling really, really nauseous because blood was dripping down into my stomach," he said. "I was throwing up blood on the plane and the pressure in my head was unbelievable."

Upon returning to Washington around 1 a.m., Poti was taken by Shaffer and assistant athletic trainer Ben Reisz to the team's eye doctor, Thomas Clinch, who met them at his Chevy Chase office. Clinch confirmed that Poti had suffered a hyphema -- bleeding in the front of the eye.

The most agonizing day of Poti's career was hardly over. After leaving Clinch's office, he was ushered to Sibley Memorial Hospital for medication, an intravenous drip to calm his nausea and a CT scan to confirm there had been no brain trauma. A few hours later, he returned to Clinch's office before undergoing surgery to repair the facial fractures.

"All they could say was that they believed everything was going to be okay, that they were pretty confident that everything was going to be fine," Poti said. "But they couldn't be 100 percent sure until they went into the eye and checked it out."

That confirmation came just after a maxillofacial surgeon made his first incision.

"They lifted the eyeball out, checked behind it, looked underneath it and thoroughly examined it," Poti said. Three titanium plates were inserted into his face, and a support was placed at the bottom of his eye socket during the nearly four-hour procedure.

Despite the severity of Poti's injury, Shaffer said he believes the Capitals' best defensive defenseman might have been able to return to the lineup at some point this postseason if eighth-seeded Montreal hadn't ousted the Presidents' Trophy winners in Game 7.

Poti has tried to focus on his recovery and expectant wife and not the "what ifs," he said. But he can't help lamenting the Capitals' failure to close out the Canadiens.

"Flying back on the plane," Poti said, "I was thinking, 'We shouldn't even be on this flight right now. We should be sitting around resting, relaxing, waiting to see who we play next.' "

When the Capitals open the season in October, Poti said he'll don a half shield for the first time since suiting up for the United States in the 2002 Olympics.

"Going through what I've gone through the past two weeks, putting my family through it, my wife through it, I've decided it's really not worth not wearing a visor to protect something that's so important," he said. "I'm definitely going to wear one."

Of the 25 players on the Capitals' playoff roster, 10, including Poti, did not wear a visor. The NHL does not require face protection, and high-level debate in recent years has yielded little progress toward mandating it.

But that's not going to stop Poti from appealing to his teammates.

"I'm going to talk to those guys about what I went through," Poti said. "I was an idiot for not wearing one before."

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