Palatine's McElman back, better than ever
One hometown hockey guy who was on the ice Sunday at the United Center enjoys victory every night out, even if he never hears any cheers.
Andy McElman of Palatine skates as a linesman in the NHL, and the sports cliché "happy to be here" couldn't apply more.
Just more than a year ago, while working a Capitals-Panthers game in Florida, McElman was struck in the face by a puck as the Panthers' Erik Gudbranson attempted a clearing play.
McElman suffered multiple facial injuries requiring surgery, but today he's back as good as ever.
"It's great to be back," he said recently. "It was a long time. It's nice to be working again even though it's a shortened schedule."
The 51-year-old McElman, a 1979 graduate of Palatine High School, has been an NHL official since 1993. He has seen just about everything, and as a linesman he's had to break up his share of player skirmishes.
But he didn't see the puck coming on that February night in 2012, as it caught him flush on the face. He said the words "career-threatening" didn't came to mind. Other words did.
"I was very upset; I did a lot of cursing," he said. "It was just a fluke scenario. I go to check the clock for the penalty time and I go back to follow the puck, and here it is being shot at me. I was more upset about it that it happened than hurting. It really didn't register just how bad it was."
McElman reeled off a litany of injuries he suffered from his unfortunate meeting with the puck.
"It broke my nose; actually it shattered my nose," he said. "It cracked my orbital and broke my cheekbone."
The injury happened on a Friday, and on the following Monday he underwent surgery.
"I've got four titanium plates in my face that will be there forever," he said. "I have numbness in my gums and in one side of my face, even a year later."
The injury ended McElman's 2011-12 season, and there wasn't much immediately he could do to rehab.
"All I could do is let it heal," he said. "A month later, I went back and saw the doctor, and he said I was able to start riding the (exercise) bike.
"That was the hardest thing, to go through an injury and do your damnedest not to come back too early. You're in a profession where you're an athlete. You want to come back as soon as possible. A lot of times, we come back way too early."
On the bright side, McElman said he received support, from peers and players. That no doubt speaks to his status as one of the most respected officials in the NHL. McElman also is a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame.
"What was amazing to me was the number of players and coaches who stopped by after the game to see how I was doing," he said. "I was in the Florida training room, and even Washington players stopped by.
"The guy that used to play for the Blackhawks, Troy Brouwer, stopped by to see how I was doing. I thought that was huge."
The current season didn't start until January because of the lockout, but McElman said he would have been ready to go in the fall had the first puck dropped on time. When he did come back, everything was good, even if it took a few minutes.
"The first 5-10 minutes of the first game, being gone the time I was, it took a little bit to adjust back to the speed of the game," he said. "After that, I got back pretty good into the flow.
"One of the guys compared it to watching a movie on fast-forward for the first five minutes. That analogy was pretty correct ."
McElman sports a face shield on his helmet, something he says might have helped him avoid the injury. He's not taking the shield off now.
"It will be there for as long as I go," he said. "We can always speculate. I think it would have helped. The puck hit me close to the bridge of my nose.
"I think a shield would have helped significantly. Hindsight is always 20/20. When you look back, it probably would have prevented an injury. But we're stubborn in our old age."
As glad as he is to be back, McElman said he never got too down.
"You feel so disconnected from everything you've done for so long," he said. "I wanted to continue to stay in some kind of shape and prepare myself for the upcoming season, and that's what I did all summer long.
"I don't know if (the feeling) was 'career threatening,' but it was a feeling like I was out of it, like I was disconnected from everything. It was nice that my partners and co-workers were sending text messages and inquiring how I was doing and how I was hanging in there.
"I'm really excited to be back at it."