The first two months of this season were routine for San Jose Barracuda captain John McCarthy. In his 11th professional year of hockey, the veteran of 88 NHL games with the Sharks was feeling strong and healthy as ever. That was a sharp contrast to how he felt when he woke up on Dec. 10.
“The left side of my body felt weird,” McCarthy recalled. “It’s the only way I can describe it. It felt off, just pins and needles.”
McCarthy's concerning symptoms quickly got worse, so he made some immediate phone calls.
The first call went to his wife, who suggested skipping hockey practice that day to seek medical attention.
The next call went to the Barracuda's trainer.
“My speech was completely slurred, he could barely understand what I was trying to say,” McCarthy said.
The third call went to the Barracuda's doctor.
“He didn’t say the word stroke, I’m sure he knew what was going on and probably didn’t want to scare me,” McCarthy said.
The prognosis wasn’t clear, but what needed to happen was: McCarthy took an Uber to the hospital where he was barely even able to describe his condition upon arrival.
“My brain was fine, crystal clear,” McCarthy said. “For whatever reason the signal from my brain to my mouth wasn’t working, and I couldn’t say the words.”
McCarthy underwent a CT scan, and was quickly administered a “clot-buster” blood thinner. Doctors expected a stroke, and it appeared they were correct. His symptoms subsided almost quickly as they came on.
After two full days of evaluation at the hospital, everyone started to see the bigger picture.
“It turned out that I had a hole in the wall between the ventricles of my heart,” McCarthy described. “And for whatever reason, a blood clot that most likely originated in my legs went through my blood stream, into my heart. And instead of getting cleaned out in my lungs, it went through the hole in my heart and got shot out with the blood that pumps out to my extremities. It went into my brain.”
At 33 years old, the healthy hockey player suffered an Ischemic stroke.
After corrective surgery, and the realization McCarthy would be able to continue living a normal life, there was another issue to address.
“It wasn’t out of the question that I could come back and play,” McCarthy said.
But McCarthy also realized the rest of the 2019-20 season was a bust, and nothing after that was guaranteed.
And then came the ultimate signal.
As McCarthy laid in his hospital bed, he learned via television that the Sharks had fired Pete DeBoer as head coach, and promoted longtime Barracuda coach Roy Sommer. Meaning that San Jose’s AHL team would have some coaching roles open.
“There was a little bit of an opportunity there,” McCarthy explained. “And I figured it was the right time to transition. Being 33, playing in the minors long as I have, coupled with an opportunity to start a second career and gain some experience. It was too good to pass up.”
Days later, Barracuda broadcaster Nick Nollenberger was inside the team dressing room when McCarthy shared his intentions to become an assistant with the group.
“Everyone put their head down,” Nollenberger said when the word retirement was uttered. “And then as soon as he said he was going to join the coaching staff … everyone erupted.”
McCarthy says Barracuda general manager Joe Will, and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson offered whatever time and resources he needed to succeed, in a transition from the ice to behind a bench.
It still didn’t make hanging the skates up any easier.
“It’s very hard, because being a hockey player is part of your identity,” McCarthy admitted. “It was awkward at first, I’ll be honest. It was strange to be in the locker room and literally the next day, in the coaches room. I went from equipment to a track suit in practice.”
It’s amazing to consider the irony. One of the worst ways a door could close on a playing career was actually another door opening to a second avenue with hockey.
“When it first happened, I was kind of down,” McCarthy said. “Rightfully so. Disappointed, struggling with the decision. And now after a couple months of coaching, and seeing that there’s an opportunity for a second career — that’s kind of a good way to turn things around for me.”
As McCarthy works alongside co-coaches Jimmy Bonneau and Michael Chiasson, he has an inherent connection with players only few can understand, considering he was one of them just three months ago.
“If you asked a lot of players there is not a major difference,” said Nollenberger. “John’s still there to bounce questions off of, to support.”
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Relating to those players is easy, but getting them to the next level is all he really cares about.
“That’s basically what drives me, is getting them the chance to play in the NHL,” said McCarthy. “That’s what it’s about for me now, and I hope the message comes across that way.”
As for McCarthy’s health, that story isn’t completely over. Later this month, a healing device planted in his heart will be re-evaluated. The hope is that the device did what it was expected to do.
“I should be able to come off the blood thinners and live a normal life, which would be good," McCarthy said.