ARLINGTON, V.A. — It was a normal day of practice to open the month of March for Carl Hagelin and the Washington Capitals. After an intense skate, the team was closing things out with competition drills, with Hagelin taking part in the last one of the day.
Then, everything went black.
Hagelin got caught up high with a stick blade, which went underneath his tilted visor and straight into his left eye. It ended up rupturing his choroid, a thin layer of tissue between the sclera and retina in the back of the eye. As he held a towel to his eye and headed back to the dressing room to be evaluated by the medical team, panic started to set in.
“It’s the most pain I’ve ever been through,” Hagelin revealed. “The stick hit me right in the eyeball. It wasn’t any bones around it that really took any of the impact. It was scary.
“Right when it happened, it sounded like they have to almost get in and remove the eye type of thing at first. The first week or so was definitely a frustrating week,” he added.
The Capitals winger underwent surgery that night and a second one almost a month ago. After it happened, the 33-year-old couldn’t see much and didn’t know what that meant for his future on the ice.
“Those first two weeks were some of the toughest in my life, especially early on when you can’t see anything… total darkness,” Hagelin said.
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After that, the long road to recovery began. Hagelin was slowly working his way to seeing again but noted that his vision will never fully return. And while his depth perception will come back over time, it’ll take a lot of training to get to that point.
“You realize how little you know about the eye. Even our main doctors don’t know that much about the eye, and then you get to all these eye doctors,” Hagelin explained. “There’s different specialists in different parts of the eye, even in such a small part of your body. And you realize how unique the eye is, so when I had my surgery, it was two different doctors: one doctor that did the front eye and one doctor that did the back of the eye. Still working with those doctors and trying to see them every 10 days. See if things change and kind of listen to their recommendations.”
Looking back at the injury, Hagelin pondered how much of an impact his visor played when it came to a lack of protection from the injury. However, he’s trying not to dwell on that past as he continues to work toward a comeback.
“It’s possible, the stick kind of came from an angle where it came a little bit from underneath. You could always look back at that. It’s frustrating when it happens in practice,” Hagelin noted. “You don’t think that should ever happen in practice… so I think that’s more the frustrating part. But whatever happened happened. And I can’t take that back now.”
After being around the facility and working his way back, Hagelin recently started skating again. He has been taking things slow, starting off without equipment before getting back into full gear and a full face shield.
“It was more the joy of being on the ice and actually thinking too much about how the eye felt,” Hagelin said. “I’ve only been on four or five times.”
Along with skating and getting used to the feel of playing again, Hagelin also has to overcome several more hurdles. His vision will never fully return, but he also has to go through intensive training to get his depth perception back.
“It feels better every day when I do it, for sure. It’s still some depth perception stuff and obviously, looking down and looking up. It’s sometimes hard to get that focus in right away, so that’s still work in progress,” Hagelin said. “It’ll be a lot of eye training this summer, and I’m up for the challenge.”
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Hagelin has also been reaching out to those who went through similar experiences, including former teammate Marc Staal, who suffered a brutal eye injury back in 2013 and is still playing with Detroit. No. 62 said that he also plans to wear a larger visor going forward.
“He said it, too: It’s all about patience. It takes time, and the end of the day, you’ve got that one good eye that’s going to carry you,” Hagelin said.
When it comes to continuing his NHL career, the Swede is “optimistic” that he can work his way back and return for training camp. He has not only been working closely with doctors and going all-in with regard to his recovery, but he’s maintaining as positive a mindset as he can.
“Status is still that the eye, it’s healing. It’s in that process. I’m doing everything I can to be back next year,” Hagelin said, adding, “I’m staying positive and I’m optimistic that I’m going to come back next year. It’ll be a grind, of course. I’ll do everything I can this summer to be ready for camp.
“I’ve always said to myself, I’m a positive person. An optimistic person, and I need to stay that way and keep pushing for next season.”