SUNRISE, Fla. - By the time Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun boarded the team plane with his head wrapped and left ear stitched up, the shock and confusion of defenceman Keith Ballard's ill-advised actions had worn off.
The Panthers could laugh again.
"It looked a lot more scary than it really was," Vokoun said Wednesday morning, wearing a black ski cap and a white bandage over his ear that was cut in the middle and required more than 10 stitches. "I do have a nasty cut on my ear, but it's not usual for goalies, but players get cut all the time. It's not a big deal to anybody, it's just because it was such a freak accident."
At the time, it was a big deal for Ballard.
He spoke with Vokoun on flight back to South Florida, apologizing so many times that Vokoun had to tell him to stop. Vokoun, Ballard said, tried to reassure him and laugh off the injury. He told the defenceman not to worry about the swipe and told him that he was fine.
"I just felt terrible," Ballard said. "I didn't know what to say. I don't know how many times I apologized and we talked for a bit and he came back and sat with me and we talked for a while longer. In those 15 or so minutes, I don't know how many times I apologized. Finally, he's just like, don't worry about it, it's enough."
Ballard accidentally hit Vokoun with his stick after Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk scored Monday night to give the Thrashers a 2-1 lead. Ballard erupted in frustration and hurled his stick toward the goal's crossbar. He whacked Vokoun instead and skated off the ice without realizing that his own goalie was writhing in pain.
"It wasn't so much that they scored a goal, I think it was just built-up frustration," Ballard said. "We've lost five games in a row, I haven't played well. Maybe everything kind of boiled over. Obviously, I did not handle it in a good way at all. That's why I think they scored and I just kind of snapped a little bit. And it's unacceptable."
Ballard, who was given an award before Wednesday's game against Colorado for being the Panthers' top defenceman in November, didn't speak with the media on Monday night and players were off Tuesday. Both Vokoun and Ballard's first comments on the incident came Wednesday morning.
Vokoun, who also grows queasy at the sight of his own blood, wasn't told how he ended up sprawled out on the ice until he was at an Atlanta-area hospital. He said he thought he had caught a knee or was kicked in the head, and admitted the truth was hard to believe.
"It's not a big deal," Vokoun said. "Poor guy had some tough luck for a couple games. We all get frustrated. I'm not surprised he got mad. You can tell, I saw it myself, he didn't even know he hit me. He was trying to hit the net post again after and he skated away like nothing happened. I've play with Ballard for a couple years, you know what kind of person he is. So I knew how bad he felt. Let's hope it's quickly out of the highlights and media so he doesn't have to hear about it again."
Ballard faces no NHL or team discipline. Vokoun is expected to return as soon as he can wear a helmet over his ear without unmanageable discomfort. Scott Clemmensen started in goal for the Panthers on Wednesday night. Florida coach Pete DeBoer said Vokoun could return to the ice by Thursday.
"Soon as he can stand the pain of getting the helmet on and feels comfortable taking some shots, which I think will be sooner than later, he'll be back in there," DeBoer said.
Ballard has seen the video of the injury and admits it "looks awful." But Ballard said he didn't pay much attention to his phone yesterday, nor did he take time to watch the incident looped on television, where ESPN hockey analyst Barry Melrose called the incident "maybe the stupidest thing I've seen in my life."
"It was terrible," Ballard said. "It's not something that you ever want to do again. I kind of got caught up in the moment. Thankfully, Tomas is OK. It could have been a lot worse."