Nikolaj Ehlers knew it was bad news as soon as the puck left his stick, an errant slapshot that caught teammate Bryan Little flush in the side of the head.
"I just saw him drop down and saw him start bleeding," a still rattled Ehlers said Thursday, speaking for the first time about the frightening scene that played out Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place.
"You never want to be the one to injure another player, whether it’s an opponent or a teammate. I’ve never been in that situation before and it shook me up a little. But the guys and the coaches and the medical staff, they kind of picked me up a little."
Little, 31, was taken to St. Boniface Hospital while the Jets finished up a 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils. He received approximately 30 stitches to close the wound before being transferred to Health Sciences Centre’s neurological unit for further observation and testing.
Little was expected to be released from hospital Thursday afternoon. He has been diagnosed with a perforated eardrum along with associated vertigo and is out indefinitely.
"Positives are our doctors expect him to make a full recovery. I don’t have any timeline for you. Just let the healing happen," head coach Paul Maurice said following Thursday’s practice at Bell MTS Iceplex.
Maurice said it was a bit of a chaotic scene on the bench in the immediate aftermath, with concern eventually turning into relief.
"It’s really personal when you see — I can’t really tell from the bench where he gets hit. I know he’s got a visor on. But it’s almost worse when there’s not much blood. Because you’re thinking he got hit in the eye. That’s where I go. And your stomach gets sick. He got up, and we get a report back out that he’s OK. So they come out and tell us, because now you’ve got everybody asking... and he’s OK, so we’re feeling good. Everybody kind of settled down," Maurice said.
"And then it kind of turns to Nik Ehlers. Understandably his next few shifts were obviously off. A close bunch of guys. Bryan is so well-liked in the locker room and you feel sick for him."
It’s been a miserable start to the season for Little, who suffered a concussion on a questionable high hit during the final pre-season game against the Minnesota Wild in late September, costing him the first nine regular-season games.
Once recovered, he came back strong with two goals and three assists in his first seven games, while also giving the Jets more balance throughout their lineup and especially on the penalty kill. Winnipeg went 4-2-1 in that stretch.
"It’s scary. That’s the part of sports where you walk into the game not thinking about those things. There’s obviously the inherent risk when you play contact sports. That’s the part of the game where you just kind of don’t know what to think. You just hope it’s better than it looked, it was obviously really scary when he was on the ice," captain Blake Wheeler said.
"I was lucky that my wife and his wife are really good friends, so we were getting feedback pretty much right away what it was, how he was doing and that he was in good spirits. So we were able to breathe a sigh of relief right away. Once I talked to him (Wednesday), you feel pretty good about it."
Ehlers swapped text messages with Little shortly after the incident, then talked to him on Wednesday.
"It was kind of funny. I was like ‘Sorry’ and stuff like that, And he was like ‘Man, I don’t even know what I was doing there.’ He’s a great guy and he knows that it wasn’t on purpose, obviously. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Maybe watch my shot a little," Ehlers said.
The list of Winnipeg’s walking wounded keeps growing.
Forward Gabriel Bourque suffered a lower-body injury in Tuesday’s game Devils and is expected to miss at least a month of action. He joins Little, Mason Appleton (broken foot bone, out at least three more weeks) and Mark Letestu (myocarditis, out at least six months) as forwards who have been shelved.
All of this is severely testing the depth of the organization. Manitoba Moose forward Logan Shaw was called up last week and remains with the Jets. C.J. Suess also came up to play a game before being sent back down to the Jets’ AHL team this week. And now 22-year-old Joona Luoto has joined the big club and is expected to make his NHL debut on Friday night when the Jets host the Vancouver Canucks, skating on a fourth line with Shaw and 19-year-old centre David Gustafsson.
"Priority No. 1 was position for us. We did move Gustafsson to the wing when Suess came up and we were alright with that, but it’s not his (natural) position. And when you’re 19, you need to leave the guy in his position. We like Shaw considerably more on the right than the left," Maurice said of giving the promotion to Luoto, who has three assists in nine games with the Moose this season.
"While there have been some guys that have been playing well or had some good games (with the Moose) this weekend, my memory is training camp and I think we’re still paying off the guys who had a great training camp. He had a great camp. I’ve got a pretty good handle on what he’s going to be able to do."
At least the blue line is healthy.
Tucker Poolman, who missed Tuesday’s game with an undisclosed injury, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice.
"I’ve got him good to go today. So I’ll release it, it was a migraine and we’re careful with those. He dealt with it and it didn’t present itself right away, but he dealt with it for two days. Once it cleared up, he got cleared and checked out. He felt great (Wednesday), worked real hard and had a full-on practice," Maurice said.
Poolman, who had been playing on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey, joins a crowded pool of defencemen including Neal Pionk, Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu, Anthony Bitetto, Luca Sbisa and Carl Dahlstrom.
"We’ve got eight healthy defencemen where we were a little thin at training camp. Now we’ve got eight and a couple in the minors that could play here, too, and we’re starting to lose forwards," Maurice said.
"This is an opportunity for us to improve as a team, and I mean that. That’s how we’re handling all of these injuries and all of these things that are going on. If we do it right, with the right mental mindset, this will make us better."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, November 7, 2019 at 10:40 PM CST: Adds photo