SASKATOON -- Taylor Leier looked like he was out cold before he even hit the ice.
The Portland Winterhawks forward took a pass from teammate Chase De Leo and was carrying the puck through the neutral zone during the final game of the round robin at the MasterCard Memorial Cup on Wednesday night. The 19-year-old took two strides into the Saskatoon Blades zone when he was hit in the head by the elbow of defenceman Dalton Thrower.
Leier fell immediately and his head bounced twice on the ice from the force of the impact. There was a pool of blood forming from where he was cut. Athletic therapist Rich Campbell ran out onto ice to help and began talking to Leier who remained facedown.
Despite having two referees – Reagan Vetter of the Western Hockey League and Jean-Philippe Sylvain of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – on the ice, there was no penalty assessed.
Winterhawks interim head coach, Travis Green, stood on Portland’s bench and began yelling at the officials on the ice: “Wake the (expletive) up!”
Green was less animated in the post-game press conference but it was clear he was still fuming.
“My player was knocked out cold by a hit, or close to it and out of the game,” said the former NHLer. “On a hit that – it’s pretty obvious why I’m upset.”
It was clear Leier was in distress getting off the ice as he needed both Campbell and De Leo to prop him up. At one point as the trio made their way to the Portland bench, it looked like Leier’s legs were going to buckle. It was awful to watch – but none more so for the Saskatoon native’s friends and family who were at the game.
“I was just trying to help him,” said De Leo of getting his dazed teammate off the ice. “He couldn’t put much weight on (himself), so I was just trying to be as supportive as I could. …He obviously wasn’t saying too much. Like I said, it didn’t look good.
“It was scary. We just wanted to get him off the ice as quick as possible.”
On Thursday morning, Green told reporters Leier was suffering from post-concussion symptoms and would likely be done for the tournament.
Later in the day, the NHL's hockey operations department -- the disciplinary body for the Canadian Hockey League at the Memorial Cup -- announced they had suspended Thrower for the remainder of the tournament. Saskatoon plays the London Knights in a crucial tie-breaker game on Thursday night.
After Wednesday's game, Thrower was apologetic for the injury caused as result of the hit.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him as badly as he was,” Thrower told reporters. “It’s hockey. The game is fast. I was angling him off and he was cutting in the middle and I finished my check.”
The Winterhawks won the game 4-2 to advance to the tournament’s semifinal, but hit cast a pall over what should have been a night of celebrating for Portland.
Blades coach Lorne Molleken said the video in his possession showed Leier cutting to the middle and being hit in the “chest area” by Thrower.
Green wasn’t buying his opponent’s assessment.
“It’s pretty obvious where the shot comes,” the Portland coach said. “It hits him in the head and there is a jump to it as well. The video is pretty obvious.”
In the Ontario Hockey League, commissioner David Branch has been proactive in trying to rid his league of head shots. It is not uncommon to see suspensions starting at 10 games in the OHL. The Western Hockey League, however, is less severe with its punishments. Branch, who also serves as president of the Canadian Hockey League, has in the past stated his concern over brain injuries and the need for junior hockey to a better job of protecting it teenaged players from concussions.
“We were told before the tournament there’s no hits to the head,” said Portland star Ty Rattie. “They’re keying in on that. (Thrower) hit his head. I don’t know where he hit (Leier’s) head, but he hit his head.”
This is the second time in three years a game at the Memorial Cup has been marred by a devastating head hit. At the 2011 Memorial Cup in Mississauga, Ont., Owen Sound Attack star Joey Hishon was hammered by an elbow from Kootenay Ice captain Brayden McNabb. In that case, McNabb was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct. McNabb was given a one game suspension – the first in 12 years at the tournament – and Hishon was unable to finish the tournament.
In fact, it took close to two years for the first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2010 to be able to play again after suffering a concussion as a result of that hit.
Like everyone else watching, the Winterhawks hope Leier makes a speedy recovery.
“You never want to see that happen to anybody,” said defenceman Derrick Pouliot. “Especially when it’s one of your teammates.”