Kyle Fundytus was all hustle and heart, the type of hockey player prized by coaches. What skills the 16-year-old lacked as a sniper he made up for by playing defence, killing penalties and winning faceoffs.
He went about those jobs in a game on Saturday. As a defenceman on the other team wound up to take a slap-shot, Kyle dropped to the ice to block it. Ever more common in the National Hockey League, shot-blocking is now taught in minor leagues, and Kyle excelled at it. “He was the first guy to go down,” said his coach, Nathan Papirny.
This slap-shot, however, was different. Instead of glancing harmlessly off Kyle, lying roughly a metre away, the puck hit him in the throat. Play stopped. “We could tell immediately by his reaction that something didn’t go right,” the coach said.
The teen was taken to hospital, undergoing CPR and then a tracheotomy. His injuries, however, were too severe. He died overnight, leaving his family and Midget AA-level team in mourning and Edmonton’s hockey community stunned that one slap-shot could end a young man’s life.
“Kyle was just doing what he does every other time he’s on the ice. He was just putting it out for our guys,” Mr. Papirny said, his voice quivering. “This is a tragic fluke incident.”
When hit, Kyle was wearing a throat protector, which is made of thick fabric and designed to prevent cuts from a skate’s blade but not reduce a puck’s impact. Hockey Canada requires all minor hockey players to wear them. Now, the agency is considering whether more neck protection is needed. Manufacturers don’t make anything that would fully shield a throat from a slap-shot, said Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of membership services. The agency will review the case.
“If there’s a problem there, there’s probably a solution,” he said. “But I’m not sure that I would know exactly what that was.”
Among many who are against an equipment change is Kyle’s coach. Only a “big bubble” could be entirely safe, he said. “It is what it is. These kids are covered in gear… It was just a fluke accident and I think that’s where it should be left at.”
Such cases are extremely rare. The closest recent comparison at any level occurred a decade ago in Montreal, when Canadiens forward Trent McCleary was hit in the throat while blocking a shot. He survived, but his career ended.
It was plays like that, however, that got a grinder like Mr. McCleary to the NHL, where more than 34,000 shots were blocked last season, up 22 per cent from a decade before.
“If I wouldn’t have blocked shots, I never would have been there in the first place. For Kyle, he was a great penalty killer probably because he blocked shots and did things like that,” Mr. McCleary said on Monday. “[The puck]should deflect off. Why Kyle’s didn’t and why mine didn’t – the odds are amazing, but it happens.”
Kyle was remembered as a gregarious high school student with a dogged work ethic around the rink. “Kyle was always there early. It’s just not going to be the same showing up and not seeing that kid’s smile,” the coach said.
At Kyle’s high school, staff and students posted notes of remembrance and lit a candle outside the player’s locker. His father, Laurie, wrote out a family statement, saying: “Kyle’s zest for life and his passion for hockey will be a memory the family will carry for the rest of their lives.”
The team’s game on Monday was cancelled as counselling was offered to the players and those on the other team. It’s up to Kyle’s 18 teammates to decide when to hit the ice again, Mr. Papirny said. Once they do, shot-blocking won’t be an emphasis.
“Well, Don Cherry might kill me, but the flamingo would be permitted, I think, for right now [to avoid a shot]” he said, later adding: “Anybody with a child can relate to this. Everybody, especially in Canada – it’s our culture that we have kids who play hockey, sports, baseball, soccer, doesn’t matter what it is. I think it touched everybody.”