How Flames prospect Jérémie Poirier returned to play after gruesome hand injury

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How Flames prospect Jérémie Poirier returned to play after gruesome hand injury

On an October evening in Abbotsford, B.C., Calgary Flames prospect Jérémie Poirier got up from the ice holding his right forearm. He darted to the bench and ran toward the locker room. Poirier somehow didn’t initially realize a skate had pierced through his wrist. But he knew something was wrong.

The damage is as gruesome as you might imagine. A deep cut along his right wrist stretched along the width of his forearm, exposing a wrist bone as blood gushed. All the while, his right hand dangled lifelessly. Poirier couldn’t feel any of his fingers. As reality set in, the pain worsened. But the numbness was distressing.

The next 48 hours were a blur as Poirier went into shock. He remembers five or six people tending to him immediately after and trying to calm him down while not completely sure of how damaging the laceration was. Afterward, Poirier was driven to a B.C. hospital and received further medical attention before returning to Calgary for surgery.

“It’s obviously the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I almost lost my hand at the rink,” Poirier told The Athletic.

After surgery, months of rehab and difficulties soon followed. Poirier couldn’t even hold a glass of water, cook or put a shirt on by himself. He had to relearn how to use his fingers one at a time. While Poirier spent as much time as he could around his teammates, he struggled at times being home alone away from the game. The setback was the latest in a string of them for a promising young defenceman in the Flames organization.

“That’s probably the toughest time in my life,” Poirier said.

It’s what makes his recovery all the more extraordinary.

Six months after a skate laceration, surgery and rehab derailed his season, Poirier will play a part in the Calgary Wranglers’ AHL playoff campaign beginning Wednesday. He returned to the Flames’ minor-league affiliate in early March, one month sooner than his initially targeted return date and much to the relief of his teammates and head coach.

“I was really worried for the young man,” Wranglers head coach Trent Cull said. “I didn’t know he was going to play again.”

The Flames’ third-round pick from 2020 is seen as one of the team’s many future pieces on defence after flashing offensive talent at the junior level and in his time in the minors. Fans have wondered about his health while hoping he can emulate other Flames prospects who’ve seen NHL time this season, just as the franchise embraces having younger talent around its nucleus.

Poirier won’t play an NHL game this year. But he has a chance at playing meaningful playoff games this spring, which wasn’t a guarantee.

“I’m feeling much better now,” Poirier said. “Physically and also mentally with everything that happened. It started to settle down a little bit.”

The 21-year-old was off to a promising start with the Wranglers with seven points in his first three games. But playing against the Abbotsford Canucks, his teammate Yan Kuznetsov held the puck along the blue line and found Poirier along the wall. Poirier held on to the puck but it was poked away by Canucks forward Sheldon Dries. The two men raced for the puck before Poirier dove and extended his stick to win possession.

If you watched the AHL TV broadcast of the game, you might not have thought much of the collision. You certainly wouldn’t have noticed Dries’ skate cutting through Poirier’s arm.

Poirier’s roommate and Wranglers goalie Dustin Wolf didn’t even notice his teammate sprawled on the ice. He was focused on Dries’ dump-in, sending the puck behind his net.

“After the period was over, I was like where the hell was JP? Why is he not out there?” Wolf said.

Poirier had spent the summer recovering from knee surgery and hadn’t been skating. In August, Poirier flew to Calgary days before training camp to be around his teammates and skate alongside them. Two days into his return, he felt an uncomfortable pain in his stomach. By the end of the night, he was in an emergency room having his appendix removed.

“So, that was another bump in the road,” Poirier said.

And now, just when it seemed Poirier would capitalize on a fiery start to his second pro season, a skate laceration threatened to end it prematurely.

For the next five months, Poirier spent as much time possible around the Flames’ physiotherapy staff, working out to maintain his conditioning with other injured teammates. Poirier would attend home games, even crashing a postgame interview in January, just to keep things light.

Meanwhile, Poirier also visited a local physiotherapy clinic up to three times a week to help relearn how to use his right hand. He was given mobility exercises to strengthen his fingers like grabbing medicine balls or scooping rice from a bucket. He would eventually work his way up to handling dumbells.

At home, Poirier practised flicking light switches, opening his fridge door and using his right hand to brush his teeth. But for more difficult endeavours, Wolf was Poirier’s helping hand. The goaltender remembers helping Poirier ahead of a New Year’s Eve party, featuring members of the Flames’ physio team. Poirier was “freaking out,” flipping through different shirts for an outfit. Not only did Wolf help the defenceman pick out a shirt, but helped him button up as he had the sling on his right arm.

The duo spent a ton of time playing video games, darts and ping pong in the basement of their place as Poirier slowly regained the use of both his hands. Despite Poirier’s limitations, those activities continued with the defenceman often coming out on top.

“He tried to do everything he could with one hand,” Wolf said. “He tried to play Xbox as much as he could. He was trying to learn the claw. But I couldn’t imagine having one hand for six months at a time. I would’ve been losing my mind.”

Fortunately for Poirier, there was at least one thing he didn’t need Wolf’s help with. Updating his profile on X.

“I’m actually a left-hand phone guy. I always hold my phone in my left hand for some reason,” Poirier said. “So that wasn’t too bad.”

Poirier admits his return to hockey has been a “work in progress.” In his first game back from injury on March 3 against the Colorado Eagles, he made a handful of mistakes and defensive lapses. But what felt important to him was that his knee and his wrist felt good. Three days later, he picked up his first point since his return in a game against the Tucson Roadrunners.

On March 24, Poirier scored his first goal since the long injury layoff. He quarterbacked the power play on a five-on-three and unloaded a shot past the San Diego Gulls goaltender.

While there are questions about Poirier’s defensive skillset at the pro level, his offensive abilities have always shone. During his days with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL, Poirier set franchise records for most goals in a season by a defenceman and goals and points by a defender through their Sea Dogs tenure. Poirier capped off his junior career with a Memorial Cup in 2022 before jumping to the pros. In 2022-23, Poirier was named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team after a nine-goal, 41-point season.

“He’s always a guy you can never really figure out what he’s going to do. He’s always keeping you guessing in a good way,” teammate Ben Jones said. “He’s got incredible skill, pretty good skater, he runs the power play for us as well. And a guy who’s always having fun. He’s always having a smile on his face, he’s always laughing. I think you guys have seen his walk-in pictures, he’s quite the stylish fellow as well.”

This 2023-24 season should have been a building block year for Poirier, with mounting expectations to see him as an NHLer sooner rather than later. Instead, Poirier has had to make up for lost time and work his way back to optimal form after a significant injury layoff. However, Poirier’s teammates have commended him for staying strong. That same resiliency through recovery even helped teammates like Jakob Pelletier, who spent months recovering from shoulder surgery and relied upon working out with the defenceman and teammate Kevin Rooney.

“If I was doing it alone, I would have lost it,” Pelletier said.

“I think that only grew his character a little bit more,” Wolf said. “Adversity is awful. I’ve had my fair share of adversity too. When you get through it, I think you come back, not only a stronger player on the ice, but your mindset’s a little bit different.”

Poirier is doing everything he can to put the last few months behind him while working toward feeling more like himself again on the ice. He’s months removed from that knee surgery and appendix removal, while that deep cut on his right wrist has become a scar. He hopes the adversity he faced will fuel him through the playoffs but knows there’s more work to be done beyond next spring ahead of next season’s training camp, where he’ll hope to push for a roster spot.

But considering everything he’s been through, he’s also just relieved to still be playing and potentially part of the Flames’ future.

“I just think you can see positives in everything,” Poirier said. “Don’t want to use all those injuries as excuses. Just try to, every day, come to work. Still grateful to play hockey, still grateful to be around the rink. So, I’m just going to come in with a smile on my face and try to have as much fun as I can.”

(Photo: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire)