By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – It will go down as one of the scariest incidents in the long history of Muskegon hockey.
That was far from clear in the minutes that followed his very ugly incident in last Thursday’s home game against the Youngstown Phantoms, when Druskinis was struck directly on the right side of his face by a flying puck while sitting on the bench, waiting for his next shift on the ice.
He collapsed, bled and convulsed, scaring the daylights out of his coaches and teammates who could see him on the floor of the Lumberjacks’ bench area. The arena was silent as fans realized that something serious had occurred, and there were reports of a few fans fainting when they caught sight of Druskinis bleeding and convulsing.
Druskinis’ girlfriend had to be led away from the area near the bench after watching the incident occur, and seeing him go into seizures, with his eyes rolling back in his head.
The game was interrupted at the 13:38 mark of the second period, and the referees sent both teams back to their locker rooms while trainers and medical personnel worked to stabilize Druskinis while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
He was conscious by the time he was helped to the stretcher that took him off the ice, and was transported to a local hospital, where he received emergency treatment and was released later that night.
It was originally reported that he broke the orbital bone near his eye, but x-rays later concluded that he suffered a severe contusion to the bone, along with severe cuts and bruises.
Druskinis was back home in Hartland, Michigan earlier this week when he was contacted by LocalSportsJournal.com. He said he was still experiencing pain, swelling and mental fatigue, and was waiting for a follow-up medical exam at the University of Michigan, where he will play hockey on an athletic scholarship when he begins his collegiate career.
“It was a terrifying experience,” said Druskinis, 18, who’s in his second season with the Lumberjacks. “It runs chills up my spine just talking about it right now. I’m feeling better. I’m still a little out of it. I’m happy to be home with my family, and happy I’m all right. We have to schedule (the U-M medical exam). We’re waiting for a call back to see a specialist. We’re figuring out a plan so I can go get myself checked out within the next few days.”
Druskinis shared what he remembers about the incident, and how frightened he felt in the moments after he was struck by the puck.
“I was talking to (teammate) Tyler Dunbar,” he said. “I’m pretty sure we were next on the ice, and I turned to him to say something, and I saw him get a scared look on his face. He moved his head back, I turned my face and looked straight at the puck. It hit me right in the cheek and stunned me.
“I fell back, my coach caught me in his arms, and I started to lose the feeling in the left side of my body. I missed when I tried to sit on the bench and fell on the floor, and I was trying to reach for the boards to pull myself up, but the left side of my body was numb, and then that started moving to the right side. It was like a full body feeling. I felt like I was paralyzed. I remember screaming ‘help me! help me!” and my heart started beating so fast, and I just blacked out. I think that was when I started having seizures.
“I’m pretty sure I had another seizure after that. They helped me up and I guess I got into the stretcher myself. I don’t remember that at all. I just remember being put into the ambulance.”
Druskinis recalls the time he spent in the emergency room, undergoing tests and getting stitches on his face and inside his mouth.
“I was so foggy in my head, I felt like I was hit by a truck,” he said. “Everything was going on, getting stitches in my face and in my mouth, they were inserting needles into me, putting numbing stuff into my face.
“I had three stitches on my face, and there was a big gash inside my mouth, so they put two stitches in there. My face is pretty swollen right now. My cheeks are kind of green.
“I was released on Thursday night. They were talking about keeping me there, but I was not going to stay in the hospital. I wanted to go home. They ran a CT scan, to make sure there wasn’t any brain injury or fractures, then they told me I was good to go and I went home.”
He didn’t to straight home, actually. After Druskinis was released from ER, he went back to Mercy Health Arena, showered, grabbed some of his possessions, then went back to the home where he lives with his billet parents in Muskegon.
Druskinis’ father, back home on the east side of the state, was informed of the incident, and made the three-hour drive to Muskegon that night.
The next night, the two of them were at the arena to watch the Lumberjacks play Youngstown again. Then they returned on Saturday for the game against Team USA. After that Druskinis’ dad drove them back home, so John could get some rest and another medical exam, just to make sure everything is fine.
“Friday I went and supported my team,” Druskinis said. “They were there for me. They were all so supportive. Coach said they all wanted to come to the hospital, but couldn’t because of COVID. I wanted to let them know that I was okay. It was good seeing them on Friday and Saturday. They won. I was really happy.”
Druskinis said he talked to many well-wishers at the games on Friday and Saturday.
“I talked to what seemed like hundreds of people, and they were all shocked that I was up and walking,” he said. “They looked at me like I was a dead person walking. I got hundreds of text messages from fans. It was so cool to know that everyone was behind me.”
Druskinis said he’s determined to return to the ice sometime this season, once he receives full medical clearance.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I will be playing, within the next month, I hope, depending on what I hear from the neurologist,” he said. “There is that thought that I might be nervous coming back, but I get in fights and guys punch me. If I can handle that, I can handle coming back to play some hockey.
“Scary things happen in hockey all the time. It’s a dangerous sport, and that’s what I signed up for. Nothing is going to stop me.”
Injury inspired the team
The scary moment seemed to inspire the Lumberjacks.
Before it occurred, they were in the midst of their worst slump of the season. Going into last Thursday’s game, they had gone winless in their prior five games (four losses and one overtime loss, which gained them one point in the standings). When Druskinis was hit by the puck, they still looked listless and trailed last-place Youngstown 1-0.
After the long delay caused by the injury, the Jacks sprung back to life, scoring three unanswered goals in the third period and winning 4-2.
After the game, forward Cameron Berg, who scored the game-winning goal, said the team definitely wanted to win it for their injured teammate.
“All we knew was he got hit in the face with a puck and went down, and everybody was wondering what was going on,” Berg said. “Everybody was in shock, it was really scary, and we were really glad to hear he’s okay. We know how hard he works in practice and in every game, so we had a little chip on our shoulder. We wanted to win it for him.”
The winning continued on Friday when the Jacks downed Youngstown again, 3-1, then beat the Team USA Under-17 squad 3-2 on Saturday in an overtime thriller.
Suddenly the five-game winless streak was a distant memory, and the Jacks were on a three-game winning streak. The victories left Muskegon with a 19-11-3 record going into Friday and Saturday’s road games in Youngstown.
The Jacks are in second place in the UHSL’s Eastern Conference with 41 points. Chicago is first with 48 and Green Bay is third with 38.
There were plenty of heroes last weekend. Among them were Berg on Thursday, along with goalie Nathan Reid, who turned in great performances all three nights. He didn’t start on Saturday, but came on in the second period of the game after starter Jan Skorpik left with an injury, and shut down Team USA the rest of the way, despite entering the contest cold.
Defenseman Hank Kempf, who missed 19 games earlier in the season with an injury, scored the winning goal in overtime on Saturday. Forward Jack Williams was also notable for scoring last-second, open-net goals in the victories on Thursday and Friday.
Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton said Druskinis’ incident had a major impact on the team.
“Everybody was shaking, but once everyone got their wits back, the guys were inspired by him, particularly when he showed up the next day,” the coach said. “It was one of those events that definitely brings you closer as a team and gives you a moment to reflect on how important the game is to you. No ifs, ands or buts, it had an impact on us, good and bad. It was a pretty traumatic event, and it brought everyone closer together.”
“I definitely think it fired them up,” Druskinis said. “I know it shook the guys up. I heard some of the guys didn’t want to come back out, but I’m happy they finished the game and got the win. It meant a lot to me that they won the entire weekend.”