It is the unspoken nightmare of every hockey player.

Mike Gartner was struck in the left eye by a wayward puck during the Capitals' game against Winnipeg last month. "I knew right away the eye itself, not the brow, had been hit," he said. "I didn't see the puck coming. I was looking at (Tim) Watters, who had gone into the corner after it, and then it hit me."

Until that afternoon, Gartner had never suffered "anything more than bumps and bruises, nothing that would keep me out a couple games." And, originally, he thought this might turn out to be a slight injury that would clear up within a couple of days.

"At the hospital, they diagnosed him and told us Mike was okay, that nothing was really wrong, and it would be fine," said Colleen Gartner, who did not see her husband get hit. "But when he woke up the next morning, with that eye swollen shut, I knew he wouldn't see that day."

Gartner's blurred vision and a numbness in the side of his face led to further tests. "There were two fractures in the cheekbone, and then they found the optic nerve damage," he said.

Throughout those few days, just before the rest of the team left on its longest road trip of the year, Gartner wondered just how well he would be able to see. "Even now it's a little blurry," he said. "It's such a slow process of recovery."

The thought that his career in hockey might end crossed Gartner's mind. "On the third or fourth day after (the injury) I was wondering. It was one of the things that went through my mind, but at the same time, I had confidence it would work out okay," he said.

Gartner and his wife, both born-again Christians, said their faith has helped them remain calm throughout his recovery. "If I didn't have that, I might have been really upset. But I didn't feel panicked or frustrated because I knew there was a reason it happened," he said. "What the reason is, I'm not going to guess, but I just knew everything would be okay."

There is no hint of trauma in his tone about the possible loss of an eye, and subsequently, a career. "I didn't dwell on that. There is always a reason for these things, and I just believed it would work out for the best," he said.

Gartner's wife originally had planned to go south for a vacation that week, then decided to drive to her family's home in Ontario for a visit while the team was on the road. "At the last minute, I changed my mind, so I was here to take care of Mike," she said.

"I was a little upset, waiting for the eye to clear up. But if we were at all fearful, well, we still felt there was a plan. Someday Mike will be finished with hockey, and if it had been this time, earlier than we'd thought, we would have been ready for it."

His eye responded well to treatment, with vision slowly returning to almost normal. Medication has been gradually reduced, and, just over two weeks after being struck, Gartner was skating a regular shift again. On Sunday, Gartner had his best game since coming back from the injury, scoring three goals in the Capitals' 6-4 victory over Boston.

"Mike had an unusual injury," said Dr. David Berler, the ophthalmologist who treated Gartner. "When an eye is struck by a puck, lots of things can happen. The eye(ball) can stay intact and transmit the force to the bone below the eye--which was fractured in Mike's case. The force can be slammed back to the optic nerve, which was bent."

With the optic nerve swollen, vision was reduced, but as the swelling cleared, Gartner's vision began to come back, although he said it is not quite what it was before. Just how much vision will return is not known.

"In some instances, the nerve cells can die, and they don't come back," said Berler. "Mike's lucky; most of his damage is swelling. Each time he's returned to see me, the vision has improved."

"I can see right now, but there is some blurriness," Gartner said last week. "It's a different way of looking at things. Not the crisp images I could see before.

"My left eye has always been the 'good' one," he said. "The right eye was the lazy one; it had about 20/40 vision. But since the left eye got hurt, the right one has to work a bit harder and might become stronger." Gartner has worn glasses for reading and driving since the injury. "It's been an adjustment," he said.

His protective eye shield used on the ice also has taken some adjusting to. "I'm getting used to it," he said of the band of clear protective plastic. "It gets sweaty when you're playing, and gets scratched, but it doesn't hurt the peripheral vision. It's an adjustment, but I don't feel it's major."

Coming back from his injury, Gartner's only frustration was "feeling out of shape. I hadn't skated in 1 1/2 weeks when I got back and I felt it," he said.

But Gartner did not play hesitantly when he returned. "I wanted to let myself know I was back and it wouldn't affect me and my play," he said. "After this happened, I thought getting back might be tough, but I haven't found that it's affected me in any way as far as hockey goes."

"Playing pool, reading, driving--it hasn't affected me," he said. "I know I'm lucky. There was no damage to the eyeball, and we'll just have to wait to see how much (vision) comes back."

Colleen Gartner said her husband's time away from the team gave him a new burst of determination when he began playing again. "If this was a handicap in any way, he's turned it around," she said. "He's put even more heart into it now."

Coach Bryan Murray agreed. "The guy always gave you plenty before, but now, you're really going to see him play at a peak. Against New Jersey, he could easily have had five goals. His only problem--and it wasn't really a problem--when he came back was conditioning. Nothing else."

When Brian Engblom was hit above the left eye during the Capitals' game with Edmonton, Gartner's first time back, he was the first player at his teammate's side.

"I felt that one," Gartner said. "It was like I got it again."

General Manager David Poile, concerned about a pair of similar injuries within a short space of time, would like to see all his players wearing protective shields.

He issued a memo to the Capitals encouraging the use of shields. "I'm not telling anybody he has to wear one, but I'd like to see it. On some teams maybe wearing a shield would be viewed as a sign of weakness. But I think we should be past those days, and if a guy is nervous about the possibility of a facial or eye injury, he shouldn't be uncomfortable about wearing some protection."

Just before the season began, Gartner said he had thought about putting on a shield. "He's talked about it a lot," said his wife. "Mike's always said, 'What if something happens to my good (left) eye?' "

"You always see guys get hit in the eye area--the brow, the face," Gartner said. "But as often as I've thought about it, I guess you don't take heed 'til it happens to you."