The date was February 6, 2015 and the AHL’s Adirondack Flames were playing at home against Utica. It was his first shift of the second period.
“It's still vividly in my memory,” recalled Culkin. “I tried to make a play going backdoor and as I did, I fell and as I was falling, my left wrist connected with someone's skate and one slice, I felt it.
“As soon as I looked down, I saw everything. I've never seen the human body from that point of view. There was tons of blood, I saw my bones and other stuff and I went into shock.”
At the Glens Falls Civic Center, the home team exits the ice between the players benches, where the ice resurfacer comes on. Call it the ‘emergency exit’ on that night as that’s where Culkin immediately headed.
“I didn't even go to the bench, I went straight to the Zamboni door and started banging on it,” said Culkin. “No one knew what happened, they all thought I got a slash or something but as I got off the ice, I was freaking out. I said, ‘It's bad, it's bad.’ Our therapist Marc Paquet looked at it and said, ‘Ya, that's not good.’”
Frightening for the Whole Family
Meanwhile, huddled in the stands, wondering what the heck was going on was Culkin’s family, who had made the three-hour drive from his hometown of Montreal to attend the game.
“My parents, my uncle, my aunt, my sister, her fiancé, my girlfriend, the whole family was there. I hadn't even had time to spend time with them yet. They arrived just in time for the game because it was back-to-back games in Adirondack. I was going to have dinner with them afterwards.”
Once he reached the dressing room, Culkin got undressed as Paquet quickly taped up the cut and away they sped to emergency at the local hospital where he got a tetanus shot and then underwent temporary repairs.
“The thing with tendons is it takes 7-10 days for them to go back into their muscle so originally, they just sewed it up very loosely so it would be easy to get back in there as they didn't have a plastic surgeon on hand,” said Culkin.
Initially they thought there were two severed tendons as he couldn't move his thumb and couldn't move his wrist up and down. It was discovered during the plastic surgery four days later that it had actually been three tendons that had been severed.
|The scar is there for good but other than that, Culkin's injury has healed nicely.|
Abrupt End to a Great Rookie Season
The three-month recovery time shelved him for the season and it was too bad considering Culkin was playing the best hockey of his life. He finished with 18 points (1 goal, 17 assists) in 37 games.
“He was playing great,” said Ryan Huska, head coach last year at Adirondack and again this season with Stockton. “He played with Corey Potter against the top lines for us all the time and he was in a situation where we trusted him in all situations whether that be power play, penalty kill or 5-on-5 against top lines.”
Longtime NHL blue-liner Todd Gill is entering his second year as assistant coach for Calgary's AHL affiliate.
“Ryan had taken huge strides. He became a go-to guy for me at a very young age,” said Gill. “That injury really hurt us. We felt his loss big time.”
It was also painful for Culkin, who went through a grueling rehab process. It began with a lot of therapy. Next came the wearing of a JAS splint.
“That helped me try to get range of motion because at the time, I couldn't bend my wrist whatsoever,” said Calgary’s 5th round draft pick in 2012.
So far, so good, declared Culkin at July’s Flames development camp, which marked the five-month anniversary of the incident.
“I haven't been on the ice often so this summer I've really focused on going on the ice, making sure my wrist is capable of dealing with the pressure, the impact and I honestly feel it's 100 percent,” he said. “The range in motion right now, the Doctor said I'll never get back to 100 percent, but I'll probably get 95 or 98 percent. I don't think it can impact much. As long as I don't cut it again, I'll be good.”
Adjusting to Pro Hockey – Off the Ice
After four years in the QMJHL, the jump to playing pro hockey wasn't without its challenges, especially early in the year.
“Change is always difficult, especially coming from my last team (Drummondville). I went from being one of the older players -- big minutes, big role -- to playing with guys 35-years-old and they all had families. I was in and out of the line-up and it was difficult for me.”
Culkin said living on his own was the biggest adjustment.
“We always had a billet family that we lived with that made the food for us and would do our laundry. I was living with Emile Poirier and the first night, we looked at each other and said, "What do we do?’ So, we went out and ate.”
But for obvious nutrition reasons, going out to restaurants to eat all the time is not a good habit to get into.
“We learned how to cook for ourselves. The first few weeks was difficult, the transition of making your own food and going grocery shopping but other than that, we had a fun year.”
As anyone who has ever had a roommate will attest, you figure out each other’s strengths and weaknesses pretty quick.
“You have to learn who's good at what. I did most of the cooking so I guess Emile wasn't that good at that,” said Culkin with a laugh. “But he did the dishes.”
Adjusting to Pro Hockey – On the Ice
Culkin spoke highly of his time partnered on the blue-line with Potter, who was in his ninth pro season. As the year went on and Culkin was given a bigger role and more ice time, it came while playing with the 31-year-old veteran.
“I was playing with Corey for a good part of the season. He's a vet and a great guy too so my job was so much easier playing alongside him,” Culkin said.
He also says Gill was a big influence.
“I've had many coaches and some great coaches (e.g. Patrick Roy with the Quebec Remparts) but Todd, he brings a bit of a lighter side,” Culkin said. “But he's very good at teaching too, on and off the ice. We did so many videos with him. Before the season started, we did tons of video, during the season, during a day off, we did video.”
Culkin, known to have a pretty good funny bone himself, says the two of them also have a similar sense of humour.
“I loved Todd Gill from the first time I met him, he's a fun guy to be around,” Culkin said. “He's played over 1,000 games in the NHL too, so he knows what it takes to get there. He did a great job with me and he was always honest with me at the same time.”
Someone to Watch Out For
Asked what qualities have made the 6-foot-2, 195 pounder someone to keep an eye on, Gill pointed out two things.
“First, he's a good skater. Second, his hockey sense is above par,” says Gill. “He can anticipate and knows when to jump in and break up a play. He's got a great stick -- good poke check. He anticipates when to jump into the offence from the defensive position.
“He did a lot of things very, very well and he was only getting better as the season went on. We expect big things from him this year.”
Huska says he doesn't expect Culkin’s injury to result in a setback.
“I don't think it's going to hurt him at all because he showed us early in the year what he's capable of so now we're going to expect him to take another step,” said Huska. “For coaches, who haven't had a younger guy like that, to throw him into situations we did and see how he responded, I think it says a lot about him and his ability.”
As he eyes the future, Culkin is ecstatic to be a member of the Flames, who play a style of game that caters to his strengths.
“It's the best organization for a defenceman like myself, who loves to join the attack and create offence,” said Culkin. “They give the green light to all the D to join the rush and I love being that fourth attacker.”
Always Earned, Never Given.
While the top six on Calgary's blue-line looks set at the moment and while the overall depth on the back end has improved, Culkin says let’s see what happens come September.
“Anything is possible. Look at Josh Jooris last year. I don't think anyone had him in the line-up and he proved us all wrong and he had a great year,’ Culkin said. “So I'm going to camp in September with the same mindset that I can make the team and I’m going to work my ass off.”
With Michael Frolik now wearing Culkin’s No. 67, he’s left to dream of that day when he'll graduate to a more traditional number, perhaps even a single digit number like two current Flames he keeps a close eye on.
“(Mark) Giordano and (TJ) Brodie, they are probably the first guys up, first guys back, they have tremendous cardio, I'd love to be like them in the future,” he said. “That's what I like to do, I like to join the attack but always make sure the puck is out of our zone before I jump up.”
And when Culkin does fly up ice, he’ll always do so now while wearing Kevlar socks and with the same cut-resistant material protecting his wrists too – protective equipment additions all the baby Flames adopted last year after the scary incident.
“It was a long process and I don't ever want to go through that ever again.”
Safe to say Culkin’s family doesn't want to witness anything like that ever again either.
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