Patrick Gaul saw what was about to happen but could do nothing to stop it.
Playing for the South Carolina Stingrays at the North Charleston Coliseum on Nov. 13, Gaul, who had lost his stick just moments earlier, dropped to one knee in hopes of blocking a shot against the Orlando Solar Bears.
The puck hardly made a sound when it struck Gaul directly in his face, instantly knocking out five of his teeth. Gaul instinctively grabbed his mouth, saw the blood and immediately skated off the ice.
“I could see it coming,” said Gaul, a four-year veteran of the Stingrays. “It’s the most helpless feeling in the world when it happens because you know there’s nothing you can do about it. You try and react and hope for the best, but when the puck hit me I knew it was bad.”
On the bench, South Carolina Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery cringed.
“It’s the one injury that makes everyone on the bench kind of wince,” Carbery said. “I broke my leg, I dislocated by shoulder, I tore up my knee, I had teeth knocked out during a fight, but I’ve never broken my jaw. It’s the only injury that I was actually afraid of. It’s horrible.”
Former Stingrays defenseman Jason Hehr, a local oral surgeon, spent two hours operating on Gaul, repairing his broken jaw and wiring it shut.
“Jason did a great job,” Gaul said. “I think the fact that he is a former player really kind of settles your nerves because you know he’s been through it.”
For the next six weeks, Gaul couldn’t practice or work out. He carried a pair of wire cutters everywhere he went in case he got sick.
“It’s gross, but you can die from choking on your own vomit,” Gaul said. “That’s something that most people don’t think about, but it can happen when you’ve got a broken jaw. You’ve got to have these wire cutters with you all the time in case something like that happens.”
Gaul was sidelined for two months and said it was tough being away from hockey, though there was something he missed even more — cooking. The Pittsburgh native knows his way around the kitchen. Gaul isn’t about to compete on Top Chef, but his meatloaf and family pasta recipes have become favorites among his teammates.
“I love to cook, love to go out and get all the fresh ingredients and try new things,” Gaul said. “When you play hockey, you’ve got a lot of time in the afternoons and cooking for me was a great stress release. So not being able to eat any solid food for six weeks and not being able to cook was the worst part.”
For the first two weeks after surgery, Gaul was limited to soup and protein shakes. A workout fanatic, Gaul, who is listed at 170 pounds, was also forced to sit on the couch until his jaw had finally healed. He figures he lost at least 10 pounds on an already lean body.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever eat soup or drink a smoothie again,” Gaul said with a chuckle. “I lost a lot of muscle mass, my weight dropped, so I knew it’d be a while before I could get back to where I was before I got hurt.”
After a month, he was finally able to start eating food, but it was limited to softer dishes.
“I think the first thing I made was a shepherd’s pie,” Gaul said. “After that long without real food, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life.”
Over the last three weeks, Gaul has graduated to normal food, including his famous meatloaf.
“You really start to appreciate things after they’ve been taken away from you,” Gaul said. “I’m scarfing down as much as I can now, trying to get my weight back up.”
Gaul, whose only goal this season came in the game against Orlando, returned to the team on Jan. 17 and is now back in the lineup.
“I got so tired of watching games and not being able to play,” Gaul said. “I love watching the boys play, but I needed to get back on the ice.”
Gaul, who now wears a protective shield that covers his jaw, has not changed his aggressive style of play.
“Patrick only knows how to play the game one way,” Carbery said. “No one is going to question his toughness. He’s still jumping in front of shots like nothing happened. Our penalty kill really suffered without him, so we’re happy to have him back out there.”