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People near and far recall when Clint Malarchuk nearly died in his Buffalo Sabres sweater.

His throat, carved open by a skate, spewed blood. The Memorial Auditorium ice turned crimson, leaving the mortified crowd to assume the worst.

But that ghastly night, which took place 15 years ago next month, wasn't the closest Malarchuk came to death.

The troubled goaltender, three years after his near-death experience made him a Buffalo folk hero, almost succeeded in taking his own life.

Malarchuk paused when asked if he tried to commit suicide. He didn't necessarily want to die. Yet if that's what it took to release the anguish reverberating through his brain, so be it.

"I hesitate to say I wanted to die," the 42-year-old Malarchuk said from his home an hour south of Reno, Nev. "I jump around with that one when I think back on it. It was more a conscious effort to say, 'I need to end this. I need to sleep. I need to stop my head from spinning.'

"I was pretty deranged."

Malarchuk's list of afflictions -- even the Cliff's Notes version -- reads like a medical journal written by Sylvia Plath. He was an alcoholic, an insomniac, a depressed soul with a history of suicidal tendencies.

He didn't know at the time he had obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which a proper diagnosis would provide a key to normalcy. The Florida Panthers' goaltending coach, who alternates biweekly shifts between the team and his lucrative side career in Nevada as a horse dentist and chiropractor, will visit HSBC Arena tonight for a game with the Sabres.

"I'm not saying he's bulletproof," said Chris Reichart, the Panthers' strength and conditioning coach and a former roommate of Malarchuk's, "but he's unbelievably better."

Tortured mind

Malarchuk was reeling Jan. 26, 1992, when he got together with his teammates at Dale Hawerchuk's house to watch the Buffalo Bills play the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.

Malarchuk had slept about an hour a night for two weeks because of depression. He spent his nights pacing the floor and vomiting. He developed a bleeding ulcer and had been hospitalized in Pittsburgh three days before the party.

He downed a few beers during the Super Bowl, fully aware it wasn't wise to drink alcohol while on ulcer medication and painkillers for a knee injury. He eventually went home and grabbed a bottle of scotch.

"I was drained," Malarchuk said. "I really didn't give a damn.

"I remember my eyes burning and going through a torturous hell. I remember I just wanted to sleep."

He eventually picked up a butcher knife and slit both of his wrists, but he couldn't bring himself to sink the blade deep enough. He blacked out in his bedroom, where his wife at the time, Sandra, called paramedics and performed CPR on him until they arrived.

He was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where his heart stopped.

The Sabres announced later that day it was an unintentional mixture of alcohol and prescription medication that forced Malarchuk's episode.

More accurately, the ordeal was caused by Malarchuk's tormented mind.

'Great pretender'

Malarchuk -- for most of his 10-year NHL career with the Quebec Nordiques, Washington Capitals and Sabres -- wore a mask even when he wasn't in the crease.

"Clint was a great pretender," said Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley, who coached Malarchuk with the Sabres and the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League.

"It was very difficult for much of my experience with Clint because he was such a strong personality that you would never know there was anything wrong with him."

The Cowboy Goalie from Grande Prairie, Alberta, has always been a gregarious sort. He gets a kick out of being the court jester:

Dave Andreychuk said the first night they roomed together, Malarchuk told the young winger, as they were calling it a night, "Don't worry. I won't kill you in your sleep."

In 1988, the Capitals met Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden at the White House. The players were too afraid to say much to the president in the receiving line, but Malarchuk engaged Reagan in a 10-minute, one-on-one conversation about western movies, ranching and Barbara Stanwyck.

"I asked if he ever took a run at her," Malarchuk said, recalling the pallor of those within earshot. "He just really laughed -- like a full-bellied laugh -- and said 'No, but I sure would have liked to.' "

With the Capitals relaxing in Palm Springs, Calif., between games one season, several players hit the golf course. So did Malarchuk and Dale Hunter. Only they were on rented horses, tearing up the fairways like cavalry men.

Malarchuk charged onto a green, pulled out the flagstick and "trotted around like I was in the 7th Infantry." The marshal chased Malarchuk and Hunter in a golf cart, only to be shot at with finger pistols.

He outpartied the rock group Van Halen. The band, a monster attraction behind its hit song, "Jump," was playing Le Colisee the day the Nordiques were cleaning out their lockers for the offseason.

"We kind of schooled them," Malarchuk said. "There were drinking contests. In the end they were pretty impressed with the way hockey players drink beer."

Malarchuk has been known to gradually disrobe at festive occasions. At a Nordiques Christmas party, he skated onto the ice in nothing but a goalie mask and a jock strap. At a D.C. celebrity bartending function, he finished the night mixing drinks in a cowboy hat and boxer shorts.

Unsteady ground

Malarchuk's life was rooted in instability.

"Dad was a good guy but he drank, caroused and was never there," Malarchuk said. "He was a good guy when he was sober, but he would get paid and then we wouldn't see him until the money was gone, maybe four or five days."

When Mike and Jean Malarchuk divorced, Clint and his mom were virtually alone. His older sister had married. Big brother Garth, also a goalie, was pursuing a hockey career.

When Clint was 12, he was hospitalized six weeks for depression and suicidal thoughts. He prayed almost constantly. He suffered bouts of uncontrollable crying. He feared germs. He incessantly cleared his throat.

Malarchuk found an escape through hockey.

He showed promise at an early age. Much of his performance stemmed from his obsessive nature. He was a perfectionist with an outrageous training regimen that lasted as long as eight hours a day.

Yet, his career nearly ended before it began. He was 17 when he underwent routine knee surgery. A staph infection was followed by osteomyelitis, a bone infection that kept him in a hospital for two months. He was mere days from having his leg amputated when doctors finally found the right antibiotics to clear up the infection.

He was drafted by the Nordiques in 1981 and traded to the Capitals after the 1986-87 season. He became one of the NHL's better netminders, known for his ferociousness in traffic, and was named to the Rendez-Vous '87 All-Star team.

The Sabres acquired Malarchuk, defenseman Grant Ledyard and a draft pick (that became Brian Holzinger) from the Capitals in exchange for defenseman Calle Johansson and a draft choice that became goalie Byron Dafoe.

Sixteen days after Malarchuk arrived in Buffalo, on March 22, 1989, he almost died in the Aud.

St. Louis Blues winger Steve Tuttle sliced Malarchuk's external jugular vein in a pileup in the crease. Malarchuk amazingly never lost consciousness and skated off the ice under his own power. Sabres trainer Jim Pizzutelli, who was a medic in Vietnam, and equipment manager Rip Simonick were the first to reach him.

"The biggest thing I remember is both Pizza and Rip actually having their hands inside his throat," said Sabres assistant coach Scott Arniel, who was a forward on that team. "The scene of the blood squirting straight out like a hose is very vivid in everybody's mind.

"They put him on a stretcher and went right out the Zamboni door. The ambulance was gone, and all of a sudden we had to finish the game. Everybody was rattled."

Said Malarchuk: "I knew when I saw the blood squirting out that it was my jugular. Somewhere I had heard that you only have a few minutes to live if that ever gets cut. I thought, 'I have a lot of repenting to do in the next three minutes.' I thought I was going to die. I told Rip to call my mom and tell her I love her."

The next day, Malarchuk was joking with reporters in his hospital room. He was playing again in less than two weeks.

Bottomed out

Malarchuk enjoyed the limelight and concealed his demons until he started to fall apart in late 1991.

"I saw just a slow decline," Ledyard said. "He was able to mask it. He was able to put up a brave front. But I could tell how tired he felt.

"Finally he just came to me one day and said, 'I really haven't slept in four days. I stare at things on the wall. I took all the hinges off my basement doors and put them back on and took them back off again.'

"I said, 'Well, I hope you got it right.' Then he said, 'The next night, I painted the basement.'

" 'The whole basement?' "

" 'The whole basement.' "

Malarchuk also was consumed with his rocky marriage. He would see an unfaithful woman in a movie and immediately think it was his wife.

Malarchuk's marriage to Sandra (his second wife) ended in divorce in the spring of 1993. He has been married to his third wife, Christy, for seven years.

Malarchuk recently denied entertaining such thoughts, saying it was a misconception reported by one publication and regurgitated over and over. But he is quoted in a 1995 Sporting News cover story on his irrational perceptions of infidelity: "That was a big one. I don't know if I can tell you anything more embarrassing than that. Is there some way you can sugarcoat it?"

Another fixation he has commented on in the past -- but has since backed away from -- was a need to double back and check for injured pedestrians after driving over a bump in the road.

Team doctors prescribed Prozac, but that made him jittery. He was given Haldol, but that was an antipsychotic sedative. He even played for a time on Orap, a tranquilizer that induces a form of Parkinson's disease to control schizophrenics.

"People have no idea how many demons this kid has really fought and how much he's gone through," said the Panthers' Reichart, a native Buffalonian.

Soon after Malarchuk just about killed himself in 1992, he played his last game for the Sabres and was assigned to the San Diego Gulls. He was despondent over being out of the NHL, and few of his previous problems had been rectified.

"It was a pretty dark time," Reichart said. "His life was basically falling apart. He was beating himself up even more because he couldn't play the way he wanted to play."

Malarchuk was sent to see Dr. Stephen Stahl, an internationally known obsessive-compulsive disorder expert from the University of California, San Diego. Stahl gave Malarchuk hope in the form of a proper diagnosis and Zoloft.

"He compared it to a diabetic needing insulin," Malarchuk said. "It was six weeks on (Zoloft) and I remember the pressure lifting. I remember thinking, for the first time in my life, 'This is what it feels like to be normal.' I've never looked back."

He finished his playing career with the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL and stayed on as a coach and assistant GM. He coached in the West Coast Hockey League for two seasons, took two winters off and then joined the Panthers, where he is given credit for helping Roberto Luongo become a budding NHL superstar.

"He's a special human being," Dudley said. "Clint's the best I've ever seen at understanding people, partly because of all the things he's been through. He knows exactly what's going on in their minds, and he can address it from experience of his own. He knows when a goaltender is mentally tired, when he needs a pat on the back and when he needs a kick in the pants.

"He is the most insightful person I've ever met."

Malarchuk's marriage to Christy is a happy one. His children, one from each marriage, are 18, 11 and 5.

"The only thing I reflect on," Malarchuk said, "is how much better of a player could I have been if I didn't have these demons."
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com