Stitching Together the Mikheyev Surgery Stories

Consider this: you’re a young hockey player from Russia. You’ve been recruited by an NHL team, and you sign a one-year contract for just under $1 million. You leave home to play continents away in a different culture, where the people speak a new language and eat different food. The game’s mostly the same, but so much else is different.

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No one – not even you – really knows if the skill you’ve shown in your home country can translate to success somewhere else. Your season begins tentatively, but your learning curve is high and your skills undeniable. You succeed on the ice and move up the team’s on-ice pecking order until you’re playing with the elite top six. There’s even talk about you being a Calder candidate as the league’s best first-year player.

You celebrate your first Christmas in a new country. Things are looking good. Then, tragedy strikes. During a game, you are accidentally cut by an opponent’s skate – badly. You lose a massive amount of blood; your tendons and an artery are severed; and, you are rushed into surgery.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Fortunately, that emergency surgery is successful and your prognosis is positive. Given a long period of healing, you can begin to rebuild your strength and, eventually, chances are you will play again.

But, of course, nothing is guaranteed. Your injury was serious and, for now, you simply must wait months for healing to occur. And, even after that healing, there’s so much work to do before you can return to your team and the game you excelled at.

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Your normal life has stopped. For now, you must wait. Truthfully, you can’t help but wonder and perhaps even worry, as well. Where does that leave you now?

Focusing on the Stories Emerging from Mikheyev’s Injury

Obviously, the injury and its aftermath have changed life for young Ilya Mikheyev. But the impact of this incident has also rippled outwards – affecting both the Maple Leafs organization and the NHL.

What struck me as I have read about this unfortunate accident are the stories emerging as a result of it. These stories are also impactful – some in really positive ways. In this post, I want to share some of those stories.

Mikheyev’s Specific Injury

The 25-year-old Mikheyev was accidentally cut by Jesper Bratt’s skate during the third period of the Maple Leafs’ game against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 27. In the chaos of the play, the falling Bratt’s skate sliced Mikheyev’s wrist open.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Mikheyev immediately dropped his gloves, skated to the bench, and walked straight into the tunnel. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery to repair an artery and tendons in his right wrist that had been severed in the accident. The official word at this moment is that Mikheyev will miss more than three months and at that time will be re-evaluated to see how the injury has healed.

Mikheyev’s agent released information on Dec. 28 and indicated a “more accurate timeline for his return will be provided in 90 days.” Because tendons take time to heal and strength must be rebuilt, speculation is that Mikheyev might be out for the season.

In his 31 Thoughts column on Dec. 31, Elliotte Friedman noted that the Devils organization deserved “a lot of credit for how prepared they were to deal with the situation, including having a surgeon ready to meet the ambulance.”

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Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston also reported the Devil’s attention to detail in dealing with the injury.

The NHL’s Laceration Task Force Is Called to Action

Johnston also reported that Mikheyev’s accident was the second in less than 10 days. New York Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck had been earlier cut on the hand by Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron’s skate on Dec. 19 and will be sidelined indefinitely after undergoing successful surgery of his own.

But these two incidents are not the first in NHL history. Over the seasons there is a plethora of horror stories about serious lacerations. That history has prompted the NHL to call its laceration task force to meet during the 2020 NHL All-Star Game, Sportsnet’s Johnston reported on Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada.

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Johnston noted that this group often discusses specific ways to protect players; after the second incident in less than two weeks, it became important to meet sooner than later.

Ilya Mikheyev Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Johnston added: “And they will be meeting at the All-Star Game in St. Louis, I think to discuss in part, is there may be some more mandatory changes that might be coming down the pike at some point because obviously everyone recognizes that these are very serious and potentially catastrophic situations.”

Johnston speculated there might be little anyone could do in the aftermath of these two accidents other than discussing optional equipment players might choose to wear or not wear to decrease the chances such cuts would occur.

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas Steps Up for Mikheyev

Since I’ve been covering the Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers, I’ve been impressed with the intelligence and creativity general manager Kyle Dubas seems to display. I’ve also been impressed with the care he seems to show in a culture that often seems driven more by money than humanity.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs Draft
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The first sense I had of Dubas’ consideration for players was when he traded Josh Leivo to a team that gave him a better chance to play. The word is that that action might happen again this season with Jeremy Bracco, whose path to the NHL is blocked by elite right wingers on the big club. To me, even if fans don’t agree with his strategy or vision, Dubas seems like one of the good guys.

As Sportsnet’s Johnston reported, Dan Milstein, Mikheyev’s agent, told him in an interview that “Kyle went above and beyond his duty” in how he treated the young Russian rookie.

Specifically, after the accident and surgery, Dubas spent the better part of three days keeping Mikheyev company in the hospital and personally buying him clothes and other personal effects, Milstein noted.

The two – Mikheyev and Dubas – also spent hours hanging out watching television. While Mikheyev was resting after surgery, the two watched sports, including Russia’s 6-0 win over Canada at the world junior tournament and the Leafs’ 5-4 overtime loss to the New York Rangers. Dubas also admitted they probably watched more soccer than hockey.

When he was asked why he did that, Dubas credited his wife Shannon with the idea. Dubas’ wife told him that, if roles were reversed and their son was going through something like this in Russia, they’d want “every assurance he was being properly cared for.” Hence, Dubas stepped up.

The Hockey Writers’ NHL rumors reporter Jim Parsons put it nicely, “Realizing Miheyev didn’t speak English well, was away from his family and had just undergone emergency surgery, he figured Mikheyev could use a friend.”

The impact of Dubas’ friendship towards Mikheyev is spreading quickly. Although I personally care more that Dubas acted in kindness, the impact of that action will have positive ripple effects for the Maple Leafs organization. It strikes me that, when one human cares for another human, that kindness won’t be forgotten. We’ve seen this story represented before in the iconic Tom Cruise sports movie Jerry Maguire.

Dmytro Timashov Toronto Maple Leafs
Dmytro Timashov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Already, as I noted, Mikheyev’s agent Milstein has carried that message forward. In fact, Johnston reported that Milstein has told many other Russian players of Dubas’ caring-in-action. And, because Milstein is the agent for a number of KHL free agents currently drawing significant NHL interest for next season, Dubas’ action is impactful.

Milstein made sure his Russian clients all knew about the humanity the Maple Leafs showed to Mikheyev, telling them: “You should know how Toronto took care of this particular accident.”

Where Does the Aftermath of Mikheyev’s Injury Leave the Maple Leafs?

I’m a sucker for good stories, and I am personally pleased about the heartwarming aftermath of the stories emerging from Mikheyev’s unfortunate accident.

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First, I appreciate that NHL teams are prepared for such accidents. Thanks in this case to the Devils’ organization for that.

Second, I’m pleased the NHL will be discussing ways to make the game safer for players.

Third, and more specifically to the Maple Leafs, it’s good to hear that the organization and Kyle Dubas and his wife Shannon specifically demonstrate caring humanity. That’s a great story by itself.

Fourth, and finally, I hope Mikheyev re-signs with the Maple Leafs and brings other young Russian prospects with him. Seems to me there’s a good chance that will happen.