CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Richard Zednik darted down the ice with his Florida Panthers teammates Thursday, sending the puck skidding across the rink just as he did last season.
It's been about seven months since Zednik was last on the ice with the Panthers, and there is a noticeable difference in the 32-year-old Florida forward - a pink scar that stretches down the right side of his neck.
Zednik's return to optional team workouts this week marks the first time he has participated in full practices with the Panthers since a gruesome injury in February, when his throat was slashed by a teammate's skate and his carotid artery was sliced.
"I feel good. I had a good summer and everything is good," Zednik said. "You come off, and you miss the hockey. So I'm really excited to be back on the ice."
Zednik had 15 goals and 11 assists in 54 games before his first season with the Panthers ended abruptly. He was skating into the corner during a Feb. 10 game in Buffalo when Florida captain Olli Jokinen was upended and fell headfirst to the ice. Jokinen's skate flew up and cut Zednik's neck, the blade stopping just short of his jugular vein.
A trail of blood followed Zednik as he raced to the Panthers bench and was escorted to an ambulance. It took an hour for Buffalo General Hospital doctors to reconnect his carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. Zednik lost five units of blood during the surgery and was left with a long scar.
"Those were some pretty sober looking guys on the bench after that happened," said vascular surgeon Richard Curl, who assisted in the operation and witnessed the accident. "It was tough, I guess, for everybody to deal with it. I think a lot of people were surprised that the game even continued after that."
Zednik spent his summer skating and recovering in Slovakia, and said it took a few weeks before questions about his scar, his safety and his ability to jump back on the ice with his teammates subsided. Now that he's stateside, he said he hopes inquiries about the frightening injury end when Florida's season starts.
"He was really close to not being here at all," Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun said. "So he's got to feel fortunate. And I think it's going to bring him another perspective on things and hopefully he's going to enjoy playing even more."
Zednik said he planned to check in with his doctor Thursday and would make another visit when the Panthers officially open team practice later this month. He hasn't spoken with new Florida coach Peter DeBoer yet, but said he doesn't want to ease into the season.
"No way," he said. "There's no reason to take it easy. I'm feeling great, and like I said, I'm ready to go."
After the accident, Zednik said he would consider wearing a neck guard, which are generally are used in the junior and amateur levels, but not the NHL. He was not wearing one on the ice Thursday.
"I'm going to wear something (during games)" Zednik said. "I have to find something comfortable."
Zednik's injury came nearly two decades after the neck of Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk was slashed in a similar accident. Malarchuk later struggled with nightmares and flashbacks, but Zednik said he isn't apprehensive about being back on the ice again.
"I think most likely, he's got a few good years left in his career, and I certainly hope that he can make the most of that," Curl said. "I also admire him for having the guts to go back on the ice. I think some people probably would not be too eager to return to the action the way he is."