Earlier this week, James Neal was rushing out on the ice for his opening shift in just his third game in international competition. Neal had played for Team Canada before on their World Juniors team but this was different; this was the best of the best in the world and he was one of the chosen few to represent his country. He's one of the top young players in the NHL and has a promising career ahead of him for the Dallas Stars. Most likely he'll be representing Canada once again in next year's Olympics.
All of his future hockey hopes and dreams were dangerously close to never being realized.
During that opening shift on Tuesday, Neal finished an open ice hit on Ladislav Nagy as the forward was following through on a shot. As he collided with Nagy, the Slovakian's stick slid up under Neal's visor and cut him across his left eye. Neal immediately went down to the ice with what was seemingly an innocent accident. Yet watching the players on the ice desperately call for medical attention, seeing the doctors rush to his side and then finally the sight of Neal, with a towel held to his eye, stumbling in the tunnel on his way to the locker room, you realize just how bad this injury could have been.
Neal had cuts on both his lower and upper eyelids that required stitches at a local hospital. His eye immediately swelled shut and the chances of him playing again in the tournament were gone. And then the news came that his contact lens possibly saved any damage to the eye itself.
"For a while," Canadian captain Shane Doan said, "he was probably as scared as he has ever been in his life."
"Anybody that is far away from home and has a dramatic injury like that, it's going to affect you," Doan said. "To be around some familiar faces has got to be nice. The doctors here were unbelievable. Dr. (Don) Chow was great, and the trainers. Later, he had calmed down a bit.
"As a player, it's probably the scariest thing, those things to the eye ... you could tell when he was leaving the ice he was pretty shaken up. The whole bench was."
Neal will be flying back home soon to Canada, and then make his way back to Dallas to be evaluated by Stars medical personnel.
On a personal note, I cannot even begin to imagine the feeling of having your eye cut like that. You can't tell that it's just your eyelids that are injured, it's excruciating pain and not only are you worried about your career but the thought of possible permanent damage to your eye has to be debillitating.
Good luck to James as he makes a speedy recovery and it's great to know that despite what could have been tragic he is expected to make a full recovery.
The qualifying round of the IIHF World Championships starts today, with the USA playing their game tomorrow afternoon. Follow the jump for an update on how the other Dallas Stars players are faring in the tournament and a look at the schedule ahead, as well as a note on how you can catch all the action from the tournament live online.
The qualifying rounds of the World Championships start today with 12 countries advancing, split into two groups:
Group E consists of Russia (6 points), USA (4 points), Sweden (3 points), Switzerland (3 points), Latvia (2 points), and France (0 points).
Group F consists of Canada (6 points), Finland (6 points), Czech Republic (3 points), Belarus (2 points), Slovakia (1 point), and Norway (0 points).
The teams carry over the points already gained in the tournament. The top four teams in each group after the qualifying round will move on to the quarterfinals.
Team USA moves on after big wins over Latvia and Austria but the big story of the tournament so far was the amazing game played last night between the USA and Sweden.
The Americans had a 5-2 lead with less than ten minutes remaining in the game, before a furious comeback by the Swedes tied the game with three goals in five minutes. Kristian Huselius scored 1:59 into overtime to secure the improbable win.
While the rally was great, the story of the night was the play of Swedish goaltender (and Dallas Stars free agent target) Jonas Gustavsson, as noted by Mark Stepneski in his story last night.
Despite eleven goals being scored in the game and five of them coming against Sweden, the best player in the game was probably Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson. The highly touted Gustavsson, who is being pursued as a free agent by the Dallas Stars and other NHL teams, stopped 39 of 44 shots and was named his team's best player in the contest.
"How often do you see a goalie give up five goals and still be their best player? He was fantastic. We might have hand nine or ten goals tonight otherwise," Team USA Coach Ron Wilson told reporters after the game.
Plagued by some shoddy defense in front of him for the first 50 minutes, Gustavsson faced several prime USA scoring chances. He had no chance on some of the goals and he delivered some spectacular saves to keep his team in the game.
The USA will play its first qualifying round tomorrow at 1:15p CDT against France. Sweden lost it's game today against Russia, will Gustavsson taking over for an injured Johan Holmqvist midway through the game.
Denmark failed to make the qualifying round, so Stars prospect Philip Larsen will not be moving on in the tournament. Larsen had a rough game in the last game against Norway, turning over the puck that led directly to the game-winning goal in overtime.
Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Grossman (Sweden), and Matt Niskanen (USA) are still playing. Joel Lundqvist is out for the tournament with an injured thigh. For a full breakdown of how each player has done so far in the tournament, you can check out ADSP.
[Editor's note: For the best in-depth Dallas Stars daily news and updates, there is none better than Andrew's Dallas Stars Page. Mark Stepneski does an incredible job of pooling every bit of news from around the world into one easily accessible website.]
If you are interested in comprehensive coverage of the World Championships, be sure to check out IIHF.com.
If you wish, you can also watch any tournament game live on IIHF.com, for a price. It's $9 a game, or you can pay about $50 for a full pass to every game. Not cheap, but it's worth it if you are hungry for some exciting international hockey.
Personally, while I love the NHL, international hockey is something that can be incredibly exciting and something I love to watch. The dimensions of the ice are bigger, there's less hitting and and goalies are really left alone on an island in a league with less than stellar defense. It's also interesting to see how different the game is treated in Europe; if you think sponsorships are bad in America, you haven't seen anything until you watch a game of football, rugby or hockey in Europe. The rink in Switzerland features a big display of the Skoda Yeti in one corner, with sponsor patches all over each team's jersey.
Check it out if you can.