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John Carlson feels ‘rejuvenated’ as he nears return from terrifying injury

Capitals defenseman John Carlson, second from right, hasn't played since late December. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
6 min

Minutes after he was struck in the right side of the head by a puck traveling 90 mph, John Carlson rested in the back of a darkened ambulance bound for a hospital. The emergency responders turned on the lights so Carlson could see his phone.

Then came, for him, the most difficult moment on the evening of Dec. 23. It wasn’t the long trail of blood he left on the ice after his head absorbed a slap shot during a game against the Winnipeg Jets, nor the doctors later telling him he had a fractured skull and a lacerated temporal artery — but instead the phone call he had to make to his wife and his 7-year-old son, Lucca, who were in the stands at Capital One Arena.

“He could pick up on what everyone else was thinking,” Carlson said of his son, and by the time he assured his family that he would be okay, he arrived at the hospital and underwent brain scans. The prognosis explained the throbbing pain that Carlson felt in his head and the blood that had spilled out of the artery from his temple — but it was tempered with relief because he had not suffered any concussion symptoms or neurological issues. He was told that, in time, he would be able to play hockey again.

Nearly three months later, Carlson is inching toward a return to the Capitals’ lineup — he could be back as soon as this coming week — but as he skated with the team at practice Saturday, he appeared grateful just to be on the ice after suffering what some of his coaches and teammates called one of the scariest injuries they’ve ever seen in hockey.

“I feel rejuvenated,” Carlson said. “I’ve tried to take care of myself, get better, do things that I wouldn’t normally do — and get ready to come back.”

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Carlson prefers not to think about the night that could have ended his career, but if he strains hard enough, he can remember the survival instinct that kicked in after he felt the vulcanized rubber bounce off his head.

He desperately skated back to the dressing room at Capital One Arena, but he kept his eyes shut because he was in so much pain. When he reached the trainers’ room, they hurried to stop the bleeding. When they did, Carlson’s head was heavily bandaged — but he was still thinking about everyone else.

It was two nights before Christmas, so he thought about his loved ones in town to watch him play. He thought about Alex Ovechkin, who scored his 802nd goal to move into sole possession of second place on the NHL’s all-time list at the exact moment that Carlson was being wheeled on a stretcher through the tunnels of the arena, past the ice resurfacers and into the ambulance. He thought about what he would tell his wife and son.

Carlson’s teammates, meanwhile, were thinking about him and somehow mustered the stomach to finish the game. Each of them had been taught the risks of the sport from a young age. But rarely does a player take a speeding puck to the face as Carlson had, and it was enough to shake up even the most hardened of the bunch.

“It was terrifying,” defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk said.

“You’re concerned it’s his brain, his ear — a lot going on up there,” center Nic Dowd said.

“Hockey is a pretty savage sport,” forward Tom Wilson said. “Once you see something like that happen, you see how real it is.”

For as much as Carlson needed to heal physically over the past three months — both because of the wound and to remain in hockey shape — he also had to adjust to the game mentally. When he first got back on the ice, he needed to readjust to the violent sounds of the game.

“When you hear the puck coming around the glass or you hear the puck coming off the crossbar, at first you’re a little jumpy. The more and more you deal with it, you get used to everything again,” said Carlson, who forced himself to stay away from the trainers’ room at the arena. “I don’t even like to look in there,” he said, “because I know what I was feeling at that time was tough.”

In his many years coaching, it was one of the scariest injuries the Capitals’ Peter Laviolette had seen. As Carlson has worked to return, Laviolette has faced questions about whether the 33-year-old should come back with just 12 games remaining in a trying season or wait until the next one. Laviolette, of course, will put Carlson on the ice only after he is cleared by the team’s medical staff. Over the past week, he has worn a blue noncontact sweater during practice, but that could change in the coming days.

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“It’s like a caged dog right now,” Laviolette said. “You could tell him he’s not going to play, but at some point he’s going to be cleared.”

Carlson said he wouldn’t come back “if there’s a risk of anything” for his future, but it has been difficult for the Capitals’ top defenseman to not be able to contribute while the team has struggled in his absence. Carlson has watched a replay of the shot — taken by the Jets’ Brenden Dillon, a former teammate — but at some point he decided to not torture himself by ruminating on what he could have done differently.

He instead chooses to think about what came after — the trainers who helped stop the bleeding, the teammates who rallied around him and the family members who were there for him when he got home from the hospital.

“It was an interesting time emotionally,” Carlson said. “I was just worried about everyone else.”

Note: Starter Darcy Kuemper left Saturday’s practice early after suffering an upper-body injury, the team said. Later in the day, the Capitals recalled goalie Zach Fucale from Hershey of the American Hockey League.