5FW Originals: Torquato Gives Thumbs Up To 2012-13 Return

Zack Torquato knew it was going to be bad.

The skilled Wheeling Nailers forward had just had his right middle finger stepped on by the skate blade of Elmira Jackals defenseman Mario Larocque in a freak play, but while he felt some intense pain, the blade had never cut through the glove.

“I remember it well, it was just a normal game,” recalled Torquato in a Tuesday phone interview with The Trentonian.

“It felt like a harmless play at the time. I was going in on the forecheck and myself and the defenseman collided and both fell, it wasn’t really a big hit or anything, but we were both on the ice. He got up before me and went to hop over me, but instead of landing on the ice and pushing off, he pushed off kind of on my hand with my the palm of my glove (facing) down.”

Torquato said it felt like a slash would feel on your fingernail. Just a little stinger. No big deal.

Then he took off his glove.

His eyes were greeted by bone sticking out where the tip of his right middle finger once was. Although Larocque’s skate had never compromised the integrity of the glove, Torquato’s digit had been severed at the top knuckle.

“I saw it and went into a little bit of shock,” he said. “I was just yelling, ‘My finger! My finger!’ I was kicking the door to get off the ice and it went dead. I stayed conscious the whole time, so I remember everything.”

Torquato’s mind quickly went towards the hopes that the tip of the finger could be re-attached, but that ultimately wasn’t the case. Torquato instead underwent surgery with a hand specialist in Wheeling, who stretched out the finger as much as he could.

“It looks a lot better than I thought it would,” Torquato says.

For many, the thought was that the February 2011 incident was a sick end to a promising career. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2007 NHL Draft by the Detroit Red Wings while in the midst of a prolific OHL career with the Erie Otters, the Ontario native had carved a niche for himself at the minor league level.

One year removed from a 12-game stint with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, the 23-year-old was enjoying his best season as a professional, contributing a career-high 12 goals in 60 games for the Nailers while also posting a pro best +14 rating as well. But all of that seemed to be in the past.

“At the time, I was just hoping they could fix it, re-attach it and I could be normal again,” Torquato said.

“I just remember asking one of my teammates to call my parents, and I ended up talking to them after in Buffalo when I was in the hospital. I wasn’t really thinking about hockey then, I was just thinking about getting everything fixed and moving on from there. I had my doubts for a bit, but I just tried to stay positive. I had a lot of support from my friends and teammates, so I got back into the swing of things once I got healthy.”

Remarkably and perhaps miraculously, Torquato didn’t even miss the rest of the season. Heck, he didn’t even miss a month. After suffering the injury on February 14, Torquato returned to action against his old team, the Toledo Walleye, on March 11.

He scored a goal in his first game back.

“At first, I had it all taped up in this plastic thing. My trainer tried a bunch of different things to fit it into my glove,” he said.

“So we were going down the stretch for a playoff run, and I wanted to make it back. I pretty much had to get my trainer to put my glove on for me and take it off for me. Once it was on for the game, it was on for good. Right away, I didn’t have as much strength. I couldn’t take faceoffs, so I played the wing. My shot and everything was a little off right away. But now, I’ve got all my sensation back and I feel good now. It’s 100 percent.”

Torquato has indeed made as full of a recovery as anyone could expect. At first, the finger was wrapped up and in a cast, but now that he again has full use of it, it’s almost like nothing’s ever changed.

“I was using my left hand, and a lot of people were helping me and taking care of me as far as cooking meals go and stuff like that,” he said. “But once everything healed up and I got used to it, it’s fine. I use it normally, I don’t favor it or anything. I can pick things up and play golf and do everything.”

If anything, Torquato has tried to look at the positive side of the accident. He says he was overwhelmed with an outpouring of support from the hockey community while he was sidelined, receiving many tweets (@ZTorq51 on Twitter) and letters from people he’d never even met before.

“You know you’re going to get that support from your own teammates and your own friends from back home, but it’s nice to get that support from your opponents and basically strangers around the league and fans,” he said.

“It’s really nice to know that they care. It just shows how big the hockey community is, it’s a big family. Even though we’re enemies on the ice, as soon as the game’s over, we’re all looking out for each other. We just try to leave it on the ice and support each other off the ice.”

But it’s on the ice where Torquato is looking to shine this season, and he’s spent much of his off-season back home in Canada working on improving his grip strength, which he says got back to 100 percent within a month. Shooting and stickhandling isn’t a problem, Torquato says. Now, it’s just the rigors of putting the digit through an entire season.

Last year, as well as the night that altered his life, are in the past.

“Hopefully that’s out of the way now and I can have a good season in Wheeling this year,” Torquato said.

Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com

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