Skipjacks center Harry Mews considers himself very lucky.
Mews, 24, has bounced back from an injury -- a compound fracture of the jaw -- that could have ended his career. He is now practicing with the Skipjacks and taking part in all the contact drills. Skipjacks coach Rob Laird said he thinks Mews may be ready to play in games in a week.
When Mews does return, he will be playing for the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks, an independent team with no NHL affiliation. He is on loan from the Washington Capitals along with goalie Byron Dafoe and recently signed Russian right wing Andrei Kovalev.
"He's very close to being ready," said Laird. "He's a tough young man and has come a long way back."
Two months ago not many people in the Capitals organization would have given very good odds that Mews, a native of Napean, Ont., and the No. 1 Washington selection in the 1988 supplemental draft, would be playing this season or any season.
Mews was injured while playing for the Hampton Roads Admirals in the East Coast Hockey League, Oct. 25, against the Columbus Chill in the Norfolk Scope. It was his first game after being sent down from the Skipjacks. Columbus center Jason Taylor was on the bench when he reached over and struck Mews in the face with his stick. His jaw was shattered and he had to undergo 5 1/2 hours of reconstructive surgery.
Taylor subsequently was suspended for the remainder of the season by ECHL president Pat Kelly. It was the stiffest penalty in the history of the league.
"We couldn't allow anything as serious as Mews' injury to go without proper punishment," said Kelly.
Interestingly, on Nov. 1, also in the ECHL, Toledo's Mike Gober cross-checked Johnstown's John Mooney from behind. Mooney suffered a broken jaw, a shattered bone under his eye, a broken nose and had several teeth loosened. Mooney had to undergo 13 1/2 hours of surgery. Gober was suspended for 15 games.
The length of the suspension was less because the incident occurred as part of the game, rather than a player swinging his stick off the bench.
"I was skating to my bench and there was some yapping between me and guys on Columbus' bench," said Mews. "I saw a stick out of the corner of my eye and thought that someone from Columbus was going on the ice for a line change. All of sudden I was on the ice and blood was all over the place. He [Taylor] hit me with his stick just like you swing a baseball bat. I never lost consciousness and thought I just lost some teeth. I went to locker room and took a shower.
"The doctor [Dr. Jamie Krochmal] examined me and told me to go to the hospital and wait for him. When I got to the hospital they gaveme a lot of pain killers and now the incident is like a dream.
"The doctor came to the hospital after the game, I was given a local anesthetic and I was awake for the entire operation. The doctor said it was an unusual break, one that he had never before encountered. It included several small fractures. The funny thing was that I didn't lose any teeth, but my jaw bone was shattered in several places. The doctor told me that a couple of inches either way -- the eye or the temple -- and I could have been finished. He wired my jaw shut and I couldn't talk or eat for six weeks.
"I stayed in the hospital for five days to let the pain subside and to make sure that everything was beginning to heal. After that I went home. I tried to work out, but when you're not eating, it's pretty tough. I lost about 15 pounds and got a little weak but the jaw seemed to heal well.
"Then just before Christmas I woke up one morning and my jaw was all swollen. I called the doctor and he had me come in to see him. I had developed an infection in the jaw from the bone chips that were in there. I had to have a drain put in and I had to take antibiotics. It was very frustrating waiting for the jaw to heal.
"But everything seems to be all right now. I'm skating again and taking part in practices and would like to be playing again pretty soon," Mews said.
Mews wears a special face shield on his helmet like the one worn by Buffalo Sabres center Pat LaFontaine, who sustained an injury similar to Mews'. The shield protects the jaw and also gives the player confidence.
"I just took it day to day and was cautious," Mews said. "It's great to be practicing again, tiring but fulfilling, and I'm looking forward to playing again. Practice is fine, but you really don't know until you play in games again. Game conditions are so much different than practice. Right now I can't wait to get back in action."