On Feb. 9, 2008, veteran NHL linesman Pat Dapuzzo suffered career-ending and life-altering injuries when he was accidentally struck in the face by the skate blade of Flyers forward Steve Downie during a game in Philadelphia against the Rangers. The damage to Dapuzzo's face and head was far more serious than simply cosmetic.
In this exclusive for FanHouse, the 50-year-old Dapuzzo opens up for the first time about his memories of the incident, the countless surgeries, the deep depression, the support of the NHL community and his determination to live a normal life again. This is the story entirely in his own words, as told to Christopher Botta.
I don't care how tough you are. I used to think I was pretty tough, that there wasn't anything I could not handle. I was a kid from New Jersey who became an on-ice official in the National Hockey League. Nothing could stop me from chasing my dreams. Well, what I've learned over the last year and a half is that there is always something that can bring you to your knees.
I haven't talked much with anyone about this yet. But the good news is, slowly but surely, I'm starting to feel a little better. I finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. I'm ready to talk about what happened because now I feel that maybe I can help some people. My story is far from over, but here's what I've got so far.
When Steve Downie was checked by Fedor Tyutin and we became entangled along the boards, Downie's leg whipped around and his skate blade cut my nose off. There was a hole in my face. I was on all fours and was bleeding badly. I thought I had lost my eye. Other than that, I don't remember much about the immediate impact of the skate hitting my face. I was later diagnosed with a concussion from the collision, after they sent me to a trauma center in Camden, New Jersey.
When I saw three fights had simultaneously broken out between the Rangers and the Flyers after Tyutin hit Downie, I tried to break them up. I guess I was delusional, but I'm old-school -- always was and always will be. I know I was a mess, but my job was to monitor those altercations and end them. If you watch the tape, I actually shove (referee) Kelly Sutherland aside so I can try and do my job. I was thinking that if my mentor (former NHL linesman and supervisor) John D'Amico was looking down from heaven, he would have kicked my butt for not taking care of business.
Jim Ramsey, the Rangers trainer, came on the ice and got me. He put a towel over my eyes. I could not see a thing from all the blood. 'Rammer' brought me to the Flyers' trainers. Their doctors sewed my nose back on. It took more than 40 stitches. The doctors were alarmed because my left eye was drooping. They told me I could not go back on the ice because I could die. My face was fractured. That was when I realized this was more than just a brutal cut.
After 24 years, my career as an NHL linesman was over in an instant. The damage to my face was worse than just my nose being severed.
There were 10 fractures in my face. My right cheekbone was shattered. Between the accident and all the surgeries I've had, I lost all of my teeth. I lost my sense of smell. I developed sleep apnea. I dealt with terrible earaches caused by bone fragments in my right ear.
I still suffer from post-concussion syndrome. There were times in the first year after the accident when I couldn't get out of bed for weeks.
I have almost no sense of taste. My wife Lisa would make me my favorite -- her thin crust pizza. So I could taste it better, I kept sprinkling cracked pepper on it. I still couldn't taste a thing, so I'd put on more and more with each bite. By the time I was done, I pretty much went through the whole bottle. Worse, I was sweating like I'd just run a marathon. My wife and I decided I shouldn't do that again.
I couldn't work. I loved my job as an NHL linesman so much, and now it was gone. And never mind that -- there wasn't any job I could do. Whenever my heart rate would rise a little, the headaches would be debilitating. I couldn't even work out.
I was depressed. I couldn't function like anything close to a normal adult of 50 years of age. We have three boys, great kids now in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. They would ask me, "Dad, what's wrong? Why can't you come out with us?" Not being able to do anything, not being able to explain to your kids what you're feeling, is probably the toughest time I had to go through.
Our house is in Rutherford, New Jersey. It's very close to the hotel where the NHL officials stay when they're in town to work Devils games. This is how bad it got: my buddies would try to contact me before coming to New Jersey. I wouldn't pick up the phone, wouldn't return their messages. A lot of them, when they arrived in Jersey, actually came to my house and banged on the door. I wouldn't answer.
This is a fact: all this happened to me because I wasn't wearing a face shield.
Besides the support of my family, the biggest reason why I have managed to get through the darkest days is the support I have received from so many people connected to the NHL. I'm not close to a full recovery yet. I have at least three more facial surgeries scheduled. The next one is on November 17 to open up my pallet and minimize the sleep apnea. But the NHL has taken good care of me, not just because I continue to be credited with years of service but because of the compassion I've been shown.
Anyone who has a problem with Commissioner Gary Bettman, I'd like to tell you plenty of stories of how much that man cares. But I know he wouldn't want me to. Just take my word for it. (NHL deputy commissioner) Bill Daly is my New Jersey neighbor and has become one of my best friends. Colin Campbell from the league office, Brian Murphy from the NHL Officials Association ... I can't tell you how wonderful they have been.
The calls were non-stop from people all over the league: Brian Leetch, Ron Wilson, Jeremy Roenick, Tom Renney, George McPhee, Brian Burke, just to name a few. Some of our best players who have gone through serious concussion problems reached out to share their stories and advice with me: Mike Richter, Keith Primeau, Scott Stevens, Eric Lindros, Pat LaFontaine. I want to thank everyone, especially the fans, for all of the support.
My brothers among the referees and linesmen never forgot me. Even when I couldn't gather the strength to return their calls, they understood and waited patiently for me to start to become myself again.
Terry Gregson is now running the show as director of officiating. This is the final season for many referees that the fans, players and coaches know well: Bill McCreary, Kerry Fraser, Dan Marouelli, Don Koharski, Mick McGeough ... there are so many of them. There's going to be a turnover of NHL referees like you wouldn't believe.
Before I got hurt, my goal had been to make it to the end of our contract with Billy and Kerry and the rest of my guys. The plan we set in motion a few years ago was for me to hopefully become a supervisor. Right now, I'm not strong enough, not healthy enough for an important responsibility like that. I'm determined to get better, motivated by the opportunity to work under Terry. Maybe someday.
I have my good days and my bad days, my good hours and my bad hours. I'm more optimistic lately because the good is outweighing the bad. I could not possibly hold down a steady job right now, but I'm starting to get involved whenever I can.
My good buddy Ed Horne, who used to run the marketing for the NHL and the NFL, invited me to be a consultant with his company, Madison Avenue Sports and Entertainment. It makes me feel good to contribute here and there, but my disability still prevents me from putting in the time I'd like. I'm on five different kinds of medications. I'm on anti-depressants. I still have a long way to go.
I'm not ashamed to talk about what I've been through. We all know people who have been through far worse and never had the gifts of an amazing family and an NHL career like I have.
I had the privilege of working Wayne Gretzky's last game. A picture from the game is one of my prized possessions. During a TV timeout, Wayne said to me, "Dap, I want you to know that you are one of the most respected men in the game of hockey." Can you believe that?
I hear a lot of "Poor Pat ... Poor Pat." C'mon folks, do not give me your sympathy. I graduated high school in New Jersey in 1976 and six years later became a linesman in the NHL. I worked almost 2,000 games. I've met almost every legend in hockey, worked a lot of the biggest games. I've met U.S. presidents and was invited to the White House. So many people dream of the life I've led.
"Poor Pat." Give me a freakin' break.
I would agree to get kicked in the face once a month if I could get back on the ice in the National Hockey League.