BUFFALO – In his gritty new memoir, “A Matter of Inches: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond,” former Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk describes the brief time in his turbulent life he felt like a king and a savior in Buffalo.
It was March 1989, and the Sabres had just acquired Malarchuk for their playoff run. In his first appearance, he shut out the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden. He quickly won two more games.
As a 27-year-old in the prime of his career, Malarchuk believed he was “on the verge of something huge.”
“That stretch was the best two weeks of my life,” Malarchuk writes.
Then Malarchuk’s world came crashing down. A skate blade sliced his jugular vein during a March 22, 1989 game against the St. Louis Blues. In a harrowing scene, Malarchuk nearly bled to death on the ice inside Memorial Auditorium.
The scary incident will forever be Malarchuk’s claim to fame, something he embraces. Other goalies, Malarchuk said, had similar careers but have been forgotten about.
Remarkably, Malarchuk played again 10 days later.
“I’m proud of the fact I came back as quick as I did,” Malarchuk said Dec. 11 prior to a book signing inside the First Niagara Center. “Even though it probably wasn’t the healthiest thing for me mentally and down the road, I’m still proud of that. Not a lot of people can say they would’ve rebounded that way.
“I was told to retire. I was told to take the rest of the season off. The last thing I was told was to come back and play that quick. To me, it’s a badge of character and the warrior mentality. That’s how I look at the accident.”
But that accident eventually destroyed Malarchuk’s life. He had no idea he had developed post-traumatic stress disorder while he was also battling obsessive compulsive disorder, alcoholism and anxiety.
The toxic mix led to brushes with death, including a 2008 suicide attempt – Malarchuk shot himself in the mouth and still has a bullet lodged in his skull – he details in the book’s prologue.
A six-month stay in rehab helped Malarchuk fix his life. Still, there have been hiccups. Writing the book was excruciating for him. Reliving his past – “all that emotion and baggage,” he said – made him drink again. He went back to rehab earlier this year for a “tune-up.” The Calgary Flames let him go as goalie coach following last season.
“Every time I thought I couldn’t finish it I’d take a break, go back and do more,” said Malarchuk, who wrote the book with Canadian journalist Dan Robson. “When the book was finally done, I mean, I was emotionally spent. I was just exhausted.”
So far, the book has generated tremendous feedback, Malarchuk said. He was worried about baring his soul in print. Now, he’s glad he wrote it.
“It’s really helping people,” he said. “The feedback has been just so gratifying, so gratifying.”
What do people tell Malarchuk? They say they have a friend or loved one who suffers from mental illness and thank him for giving them a better understanding. He said about 80 percent of the feedback has come from fellow sufferers.
“They relate to everything I’ve been through and talked about in the book,” he said. “They relate so closely to it (they can) talk about it, because I’ve talked about it.
“Having played in the NHL, we’ve got the Superman thing going with the public, and that is to say that we’re human and to portray that, hey, we struggle, too, helps the regular guy go, ‘Oh, OK, not only is this normal, this isn’t that uncommon that it also affects even athletes, successful people.’”
For Malarchuk, raising awareness and fostering a better understanding of mental illness became his calling after he “woke up in intensive care with a bullet in my head.”
“Surviving that, I asked, ‘Why? Why me?’” he said. “I’ve faced death three times. I started to think about, ‘What’s my purpose, you know?’ I always thought it was to be an NHL goalie and to be an NHL coach, and now I look at it and those were just avenues to my purpose, and my purpose is to help people.”
Malarchuk plans to begin speaking engagements and has an agency booking appearances for him. If those talks go as well as his four recent promotional stops around Buffalo, he could have a new career. Books sold out around town. Fans greeted him warmly.
His wife, Joanie, had never visited Buffalo before and wanted to know what the city was like.
“I said, ‘The people are awesome,’” Malarchuk said. “I mean, you walk by and people smile, they say hi, chit chat. It’s a good town. They’ll rally around a team. It’s a blue-collar sports town. It’s hard not to like it when you’re playing for the Sabres.”
After his signing, Malarchuk watched the Sabres play Calgary beside former Buffalo player and coach Rick Dudley, his close friend.
“I mentioned to him how friendly Buffalo is, and he goes, ‘Yeah, they never forget if you’re a player here,’” Malarchuk said.