As far as Cody McCormick knows, he might very well be the only player in NHL history to score a goal with a deadly blood clot in his lungs.
As far as blood clot sufferers go, the former Buffalo Sabre can consider himself lucky, given that people who experience a pulmonary embolism can die with little warning.
It was Jan. 9, 2015, and the Sabres were in the fourth game of a road trip. McCormick, who had been having pain in his leg after blocking a shot days earlier, was hit in the chest — a regular body check, he said — and started experiencing tightness and difficulty breathing. He soldiered on and scored the Sabres’ only goal against the Lightning that night, and after returning home, he asked his wife to set out the recliner because he’d have too much trouble lying down.
The trainers sent him to the hospital the next day. The forward, no stranger to bumps and bruises in his 11-year NHL career, expected his visit to last an hour.
It took three days.
According to McCormick, doctors detected a clot in his lungs that had originated in his calf — a case of deep vein thrombosis taken to its most dangerous end. He didn’t know it then, but that game against the Lightning would be the last he would ever play in the NHL.
“I didn’t want to do tests,” he said. He had brought his 6-year-old daughter with him when he went to the team’s facility, with no thought that he would end up in the hospital. Briefly, she was the only family member with him, “but they put me in a bed and wouldn’t let me move.”
The diagnosis was a dangerous blood clot in his lung — a condition that, according to the National Institutes of Health, can kill anywhere from 15 to 95 percent of sufferers, depending on treatment.
Other NHL players such as Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos have returned after being diagnosed with clots, but their situations originated from thoracic outlet syndrome and were significantly less dangerous.
“I always thought I could come back, but a couple doctors said I was crazy and others said I had a chance, but there would be a risk,” McCormick said. “I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my wife and kids and I didn’t want anything catastrophic to happen on the ice.”
Kimmo Timonen, then with the Blackhawks, and Tomas Vokoun of the Penguins also nearly died because of pulmonary embolisms and retired. Eighty years ago, Montreal’s Howie Morenz died of a coronary embolism after suffering a broken leg during a game; while he was laid up for weeks recovering from the leg injury, a clot traveled to his heart.
There are things players can do if they’ve had blood clots in their legs — blood thinners, or a sort of filter that stops the clot from traveling — but these things do involve risk, said Dr. Laith Jazrawi, chief of sports medicine at NYU-Langone Medical Center.
“It’s not something to be taken lightly, and these [filters] can travel,” Jazrawi said. “If he’s on chronic blood thinners, he may be hit in the head and get a concussion and bleed out.”
That’s the reason that McCormick finally hung it up. Though his final game was in January 2015, he didn’t officially retire until April 2016. He still needs to get injected with a blood thinner, he said, but there was a long time when he thought he could make a comeback.
“The Buffalo Sabres were never going to clear me [to play],” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to clear [the physical], but I thought about writing up a waiver where the team would be at risk if something happened to me. My agent said it wasn’t worth it, and when it comes down to it, I didn’t want anyone to be worried about me as I played.
“I never wanted my wife and kids to see me in a hospital bed again.”