By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – Speeding down the ice chasing a puck into the corner is just a routine part of hockey.
Don't tell that to Dylan Gauthier of the Escanaba High School hockey team. He knows a lot can go wrong in just an instant as that skidding black sphere bounces along the ice.
As a freshman Feb. 7, 2013, in Chelsea, Gauthier was in hot puck pursuit when he was seriously injured in a freakish, non-contact incident that cost the three-sport athlete the rest of his hockey season. He suffered a broken right leg (tibia and fibula) and severed his right Achilles tendon when his skate hit a patch of ice and he ended up crashing into the boards.
"I was chasing a loose puck and I lost my edge and hit the boards (feet first)," Gauthier said Wednesday in his Soo Hill home shortly before the Eskymos would play Painesdale-Jeffers. "I hit the boards hard. I looked down and saw a hole in my leg. I knew something was wrong."
As he crashed into the boards, the blade on his left skate rammed into his right ankle and severed the Achilles tendon. "No one was there; I just kind of lost it," he said.
He instantly was in pain, "then I didn't feel anything. There was a lot of blood," he said, indicating he soon went into shock and his leg went numb, which was probably a blessing during an aftermath that eventually included a trip to the University of Michigan hospital in Ann Arbor.
"I was kind of out of it at first, but I knew it was bad," he said, recalling teammates would come to him and quickly leave once they saw the damage.
The mother of one of his teammates, T.J. Myrick, came onto the ice and wrapped the completely lacerated wound in her scarf in hopes of stopping the bleeding.
His parents, Mark and Mary, were home listening to the game on the radio and they quickly hit U.S. 2 and headed downstate at 9 p.m., a trip that took 10 hours thanks to a good blizzard. They were approaching the Mackinac Bridge about the time surgery began on the Achilles. Surgery on the broken bones took place a week later, with two screws inserted that will remain in his leg.
Dylan recalls listening to the rest of the game broadcast in the hospital as he awaited surgery. The next day his teammates visited, but were allowed only in small groups and for a brief time. They gave him a hockey stick signed by each player and a team photo with the sister of a teammate, Jaylyn Dagenais, standing where he would have been.
He wasn't aware of the Achilles damage until reaching the hospital, and remembers thinking about what the athletic future held for him. "What happens next, what is the next step," he said, an indication that mentally he was in good spirits despite the major physical injuries.
After the surgery he learned the skate slice was very close to a major artery, which could have created even more serious damage.
Tim McCarthy, then in his final season as Escanaba head coach, said recently "when he went down I remember watching him on the ice, and he grabbed his leg right away. There was quite a bit of blood coming out, and we tried to get anything we could find to wrap his leg and stop the bleeding."
He said Gauthier's leg "snapped over the back of the skate and caught in there and wouldn't come out. There was nowhere to go but in (the tendon)."
McCarthy remembers that up until that injury Gauthier had exhibited typical freshman issues, noting, "Dylan was a little timid going into the corners. I had his cousin (Nick Vandermissen) pushing him to get more aggressive."
Gauthier, one of seven freshmen on that team, was on a line with Vandermissen and Levi Wunder, two of the best players in the program's 30-year history. "He was progressing well. He was starting to make strides. He always had talent, but he needed a mindset to go out and do what was asked of him and not be timid," said McCarthy.
"He is an athlete, and a good one. He is very good at what he does. He rebounded real well and works real hard."
McCarthy said it was fortunate the injury happened at the MPS Showcase, a huge midseason tournament, because it was so close to Ann Arbor. "They took care of him right away," he said.
The Eskymos handled the adversity very well, McCarthy said of winning two of the three weekend games: "We went down there to prove a point and try to get the respect we should have been getting. Nick had a tough time with it, but the team seemed more determined that weekend to do something for Dylan. They played a little harder after that."
Matt Hughes, the current Escanaba head coach, said Gauthier "has responded pretty well to that freak injury. He is not letting it overtake him mentally. Being a young athlete, his body responded well and he was able to get back. The physical part was probably easier to overcome than the mental part, but it will always be in the back of your mind."
Gauthier missed the final 13 games of what became a school-record 24-4 season. He is in his fourth season on the varsity and helped the team reach the Division 2 Semifinals in 2014-15. "The kids are working hard. They want to get back to where we were at last year," said Hughes.
Gauthier has four goals and three assists this season as the Eskymos have built a 7-3 start. They return to Chelsea Jan. 28-30.
Gauthier also plays golf and football for the Eskymos. In fact, he was playing golf 82 days after the injury while wearing a brace and basically playing off one leg. Still, he earned second-team All-Upper Peninsula honors. He has been an all-U.P. first-team all-star the past two years and received some interest from college golf teams.
Golf is his favorite sport, which makes sense because his parents and brother Mark are also excellent golfers. Mark plays at Finlandia University in Hancock.
Playing golf that soon was difficult because it was hard to pivot on his right foot at first. He did not start running until shortly before football practice began, then returned as a running back for the junior varsity and scored three touchdowns against Gladstone.
He played on the varsity the last two years and noted that making cuts on the gridiron was the hardest part of his athletic recovery.
His mother has been pleased with how Dylan handled the injury and rehabilitation. "He has a laid-back attitude. That is why it didn't bother him," she said. "The whole thing affected us more than it did him."
He said, "mentally I was fine. I never thought about it out there (while playing any sport), but it was a little weird at first. I just blew it away. The chance of it happening again is kind of slim."
A fund-raiser directed by Bill LaMarch helped raise money for the team to purchase Kevlar socks, which go up to the knee and should prevent a skate from penetrating to the leg.
After the injury, Gauthier wore a long-leg cast with a window left open for the Achilles and was on crutches for a month, then had a boot cast. He did his rehab at Northwood Rehabilitation in Escanaba under the direction of physical therapist Marge Haslow. "She helped a lot, she got me through it all," he said. "She made you do your stuff. There were no easy days in there."
As his high school career begins winding down, Gauthier realizes he was very fortunate to come through such a freakish and serious injury with missing just over one month of his three-sport career.
"I've accomplished a lot. I know I could not have played at all," he said, relief obvious in his voice.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba's Dylan Gauthier controls the puck during his team's game against Painesdale-Jeffers on Wednesday. (Middle) Gauthier (2) suffered a painful injury during a game at Chelsea as a freshman in 2013 that required multiple surgeries. (Top photo and head shot by Dennis Grall; middle photo by Jack Hall.)
Join Jonathon Kidd and Sean Baligian for the another edition of State Champs! Hockey Time.
1:36 - Recap from last week in High School Hockey
5:46 - Warrior Hockey Wall Award Update
7:09 - Coaches' Corner - Dane Baruzzini - Novi
9:33 - Hockey Time "Flow Challenge" Update
13:31 - Warrior Hockey Player of the Year Update
15:01 - D3 Showcase and MIHL-KLAA Showcase Preview