Bryan Berard remembers the injury that changed his life

Bryan Berard thinks about the injury and what could have been every day since March 11, 2000. Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

First thing every morning, Bryan Berard is reminded how his life and hockey career changed in a split second on March 11, 2000.

The former NHL defenseman was only six days past his 22nd birthday.

A member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Berard was playing against the Ottawa Senators.

The teams were in a four-on-four situation, with the Senators pressuring in the offensive zone. Then-Ottawa prospect Marian Hossa attempted to one-time a loose puck but missed. His follow-through continued out of control and the blade of his stick violently struck Berard in the right eye.

It was a graphic scene at Corel Centre in Ottawa. The end result is a constant reminder for Berard.

"Every day I think about it. I wake up and I only have one eye. It's every day," he said. "I don't know if it's a lot of 'what ifs?' It was a freak accident. It's part of the sport. At that time, a lot of players didn't wear shields."

Hossa's stick ruptured Beard's eyeball. He knew immediately it wasn't good. After he was helped to the visitor's locker room, doctors, trainers and the Maple Leafs' healthy scratches were all there staring at Berard.

"I knew I was in trouble," Berard said. "At that point, I was just hoping to save my eye and hopefully be able to come back and play."

Senators' team doctors made an immediate determination that Berard needed to be transported to a local hospital. He was first taken to Ottawa Civic Hospital, then transferred to Ottawa General when it was determined Berard needed emergency surgery.

"We needed to get him help right away," recalled then-Maple Leafs trainer Brent Smith.

The first surgery lasted 3 ½ hours. Doctors were skeptical that Berard would ever see again. Smith stayed in the hospital and recalls the next morning when doctors performed a simple light test in the examination room. Berard was able to identify when the lights were on or off.

"All the doctors involved, their jaws just about hit the floor because he was able to give this information from the eye that was damaged so badly," Smith said. "That was a eureka moment for all the surgeons. I was in the room and it was like, 'Wow. He can see light.' It was great."

The day after the accident, Hossa, along with Ottawa teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden, visited Berard in the hospital. Smith remembers it was a respectful visit and said Berard handled it like a professional.

"Hossa felt awful and apologized. Again, it wasn't his fault," Berard said. "I would say it was a little careless high stick, but I kind of jumped into the play and it was a freak accident."

Smith spent 20 years as a trainer in pro hockey with the Leafs until 2005 and then with the New Jersey Devils for a few seasons. He has been out of the game the past eight years.

"It was pretty intense," said Smith, who's still involved in the athletic training community and is regularly asked about his experiences dealing with injuries.

"Absolutely Bryan's [injury] is right at the top of the list," Smith said. "From both a trauma perspective and from a career perspective and the impact it had on his career.

"I was always impressed with the way Bryan took this turn of fate. The way he dealt with the injury immediately in the hospital the next day, through all the surgeries and until this day, I have never heard him once complain. I was really impressed with the way he handled himself."

Hossa, who respectfully declined to be interviewed for this story, struggled the rest of that 1999-00 season. At the time of the incident, Hossa was 21 years old; he led the team with 27 goals and had registered 16 points (including 10 goals) in his previous 16 games.

In the last 14 games of the season, he recorded only two goals.

"Marian is a real outstanding person. He's a great competitor, a great player. He's had a great career and is still an elite player," said former Senators coach Jacques Martin, who is now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'm sure it affected [him], knowing the kind of person he is. It was unintentional and accidental, but you still feel bad, and I'm sure a little guilty that it happened, that it was his stick that hit Bryan in the eye.

"As much as you try to put it aside, it probably, definitely was a factor because of the type of person Marian is, the type of quality individual."

The Senators drafted Berard with the No. 1 pick in 1995, but he never signed with Ottawa and was eventually traded to the New York Islanders. He won the Calder Trophy after the 1996-97 season and was considered one of the best two-way defensemen in the league. He had size, strength, skill, toughness and a keen hockey sense.

He was traded to the Maple Leafs in January 1999 and had already played five seasons in the NHL when Hossa's stick seemingly ended Berard's career. Despite numerous setbacks, more surgeries and a league-mandated minimum eyesight of 20/400, miraculously, Berard missed only one season.

He signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent and played all 82 games during the 2001-02 season, registering two goals and 21 assists.

"It was incredible that he was able to come back at all," Smith said.

When he returned, Berard believes he was playing at 65-70 percent due to his lost vision in his right eye. Competing in the corners was difficult but he played another six seasons in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and finished his career back with the Islanders in 2007-08.

"I would've liked to have seen where my career could have gone being healthy with two eyes," Berard said. "I had two back surgeries that I think even made my career shorter. I felt like I was starting to really get my game back with Chicago and then Columbus and putting up some big points again and then I had my back injury, so my career was cut short with that as well.

"I look back and I wish I could've seen how I could have played, and how long I could have played with being healthy."

Now a financial consultant in business development for WhaleRock Point Partners in his home state of Rhode Island, Berard, 39, works with young athletes and hopes to one day land a job with an NHL organization in player development.

When he discusses his career-altering injury, the debate of wearing a visor is brought up. He wasn't wearing one at the time of the accident. It was an uppercut motion that injured him and, even if he was wearing a mask, it's likely he still would have been hurt to some extent.

Rules have changed and now players entering the league are required to wear a half shield, while veterans are grandfathered in and have the choice to wear one or not.

"It's still a player's choice and I'm still in favor of that," Berard said. "Now, the issue is the guys that come into the league that are wearing shields, they're just careless.

"I grew up on the ponds. We didn't wear helmets. We didn't wear any equipment and you learn to keep your stick down. Now, these kids are protected at a young age and they come up through juniors and they're wearing half shields all the time, so I think guys just get a little more careless. If I was coming into the league now, I would be wearing a shield."

He's now bothered by a bad hip and limits his ice time to only a few alumni games a season. Even though he's reminded daily of his injury, he can't believe it's been 16 years.

"I kind of chuckle when you say that it's been 16 years," he said. "It doesn't feel that long, but it has gone by quick, that's for sure."