By Tom Hanson
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Ernie Hartlieb doesn’t remember the collision at the blue line. He doesn’t recall losing his helmet and cracking his head on the ice. He doesn’t remember being in a coma for 12 days.
Yet, he’ll never forget the nightmares.
I was walking through a cemetery and I come upon my own gravestone. The grave had been dug but it was empty. Then I fell into it. The dirt starts pouring in on me. I then see my friend’s father who died in the same hospital that I was in. He reaches his hand out and smiles. I grab his hand and he pulls me out.
At that moment, Hartlieb awoke from his coma.
To watch the Florida Everblades forward skating on the ice now, one would never know that nearly eight years ago his dream of playing professional hockey and his life nearly came to an end on an innocent hit during a pickup game.
For Hartlieb, it’s as if the entire day never happened.
“I lost all my memory of that day,” Hartlieb says. “I don’t remember going to the rink. People have told me what happened. All I remember is waking up 12 days later in a hospital.”
But the 25-year-old still has little reminders of June 24, 1997.
There’s the scar on his stomach where the feeding tube was inserted. There’s the other scar on his neck where he needed a tracheotomy so he could breathe.
He’s deaf in his right ear as a result of breaking a bone during the fall that punctured his eardrum. And it’s hard for him to forget the five titanium plates in his head and 30 screws holding them in place.
Hartlieb’s reminded of that with every hard check he takes against the boards.
“Every time I hit my head against the glass I get freaked out a little bit,” he says. “But I’m not scared to get hit. But it reminds me of what happened.”
Hartlieb doesn’t have any fears of being re-injured. It was his strong desire to play hockey that helped him recover.
And as the Everblades edge closer to the Kelly Cup Finals, with a 3-2 advantage over the Charlotte Checkers in the American Conference Finals heading into tonight’s Game 6 in Charlotte, N.C., Hartlieb focuses on other dreams.
They help him forget the nightmares.
“I have better dreams now,” Hartlieb says. “I just want to win a championship. Growing up you always dream of winning a title. It doesn’t matter at what level, you just want to be part of a championship and right now we are really close to that dream.”
The forgotten day
In hockey, it’s called a “shinny.” It was a simple little pickup hockey game at Fraser Ice Arena in the northern suburbs of Detroit where some of the area’s best players got together to work out.
Hartlieb, 18 at the time, had just graduated from high school and signed a letter-of-intent to play for Miami (Ohio) University.
Jon Insana remembers having the puck and moving toward the offensive end when Hartlieb collided with Matt Elich. Insana thought it was a harmless collision.
He continued to skate toward the net as if nothing happened. But as he went by Hartlieb and saw him sprawled out on the ice, he knew something was seriously wrong.
Hartlieb’s eyes were rolled back in his head and blood was trickling out of his right ear.
“It looked like a relatively harmless thing, it’s something that happens in the game all of the time,” Insana says. “But when I went by, he was completely out of it.”
Hartlieb’s youth coach, Chris Courey, who had organized the shinny, already had rushed on the ice. He saw the collision, Hartlieb’s helmet fly into the air and his head smack the ice. Hartlieb says he didn’t have his chin strap fastened tightly.
Courey knew immediately Hartlieb was critically injured.
“You could hear his head hit the ice,” Courey says. “It was a scary sight.”
At first, the players on the ice didn’t think Hartlieb’s injuries were serious. They tried to get him on his feet, but he wouldn’t move. Then he went into convulsions.
Insana skated off and called 911.
“It was freaky,” says Insana, who played for the Everblades last year and in 2002-03. “It’s the scariest moment of my life. Here’s one of my good friends, someone I grew up playing with, lying on the ice bleeding and having a seizure. I didn’t know what to think.”
Courey knew enough to hold Hartlieb’s tongue during the seizure. He had seen a referee do it before in a similar incident. By the time the ambulance arrived, Hartlieb’s seizures had subsided.
Insana and another player followed the ambulance to Mount Clemens (Mich.) General Hospital. The remaining players continued on with the game.
“I don’t think anyone knew the severity of his injury,” Insana says. “I didn’t even know how bad it was myself until the doctors at the hospital told me that his injuries could be life threatening.”
Insana remembers having the tough task of calling Hartlieb’s parents. He left a vague message: “Ernie got hurt at hockey today and he’s at the hospital. You need to come quickly.”
Hank Hartlieb says he’ll never forget listening to the message. He knew his son was severely hurt by the tone of Insana’s voice.
“I knew it was bad,” Hank Hartlieb says. “And then I get there and the doctors are basically waiting outside for me. They said he needed surgery to relieve the hemorrhaging in his brain immediately. And they couldn’t make any promises if he’d come out alive or not.”
Hank Hartlieb remembers seeing his son on the gurney as he entered an elevator on his way up to surgery. He thought it might be the last time he’d see his son alive. And he didn’t know how he was going to tell his wife, Ernie’s mother, Randa, who was still at work.
“I really didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Hank Hartlieb said. “Then I had to call my wife. I didn’t know how to tell her. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
It was a nightmare
I dreamt that someone was whipping my head. Then I felt like someone was stabbing me. And then someone came and cut my feet off.
These are Hartlieb’s memories of the surgery, the placement of the feeding tube and the nurses taking blood from his feet during the 12-day ordeal.
“It was like a bad dream, after a bad dream, after a bad dream,” he says. “Everyone always asks if I remember anything. I say, ‘Yes, and it was terrible.’ ”
Doctors credited the fact that he was a superb athlete for making it through the surgery. His parents credited his desire to play hockey for getting him back on his feet and even on skates again.
“He’s my miracle on ice,” Randa Hartlieb says. “Ernie’s love of hockey was so strong that nothing was going to stop him. Playing professional hockey was his dream since he was a young boy and nothing was going to get in his way.”
But it wasn’t easy.
After spending 30 days in the hospital, Hartlieb had changed drastically.
He lost 40 pounds and all the muscles in his body had deteriorated. His shoulder-length, bleached-blonde locks were shorn off.
He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk without the help of an electronic device.
Yet, he didn’t lose his want. His desire to be successful in hockey became even stronger.
His main concern wasn’t if he could walk again. He wondered if he’d ever skate.
When he finally returned home, Hartlieb headed down to the basement and laced up his rollerblades. After taking a few laps, he knew he could do it again.
Hartlieb would later bring his rollerblades to the hospital to show the doctors that his dream of playing hockey wasn’t dead.
“They are like, ‘You will never play hockey again,’ ” Hartlieb says. ” ‘You know you’ve got five plates and 30 pins in your head.’ And I freaked out. I was like, ‘You’re not going to stop me from playing hockey.’ I was screaming at the doctor. I snapped at my father, too. They weren’t going to tell me that I wasn’t going to play hockey anymore.”
To prove it, Hartlieb went out in the back parking lot of the hospital with his rollerblades. “The doctors thought he was crazy,” Hank Hartlieb says. “But I knew that there wasn’t anything a doctor or myself could say that was going to stop him from playing. He’s always been an extremely determined person and it’s that determination that helped him through the accident and then back onto the ice.”
The healing process
Ernie Hartlieb got well enough to attend the first day of classes at Miami. That’s the day he first saw his future wife, Megan.
“I saw her walking down the street and I told my buddies that I was going to marry that girl,” he says. “They all laughed.”
He followed Megan to her dorm, but with his hair still in the process of growing back and his physique not looking very athletic, he didn’t have the confidence to ask her out.
Megan wasn’t the only thing that would have to wait.
School officials didn’t let him participate in hockey for six months. This turned out to be a blessing because Hartlieb admitted he wasn’t ready — physically or mentally.
“We had a strength test the first day and I couldn’t even lift the bar up,” he says. “And when I walked, I could hear my head clicking. When I stepped on my right foot it was ‘Click, click, click’ in my skull. It freaked me out but I wasn’t going to let that discourage me.”
After the winter semester, Hartlieb received clearance to start practicing. He had every intention of redshirting his freshman year. But after several injuries on the team, he was forced into action.
Hartlieb played in Miami’s final nine games. This helped the healing process for both him and his parents.
“I was a little scared at first,” Hartlieb says. “But I remembered getting smoked on a hit in my first game. It dazed me a little but then I realized that I was going to be OK. It helped the fear go away.”
Hank Hartlieb went to the first game but his wife stayed away. At the urging of Ernie, Randa came to the second game at Bowling Green. As fate would have it, Ernie scored his first goal. He’d give the puck to his mother.
“I was extremely nervous,” Randa Hartlieb says. “No mother wants to see their son get hurt. But then he scores the goal and everyone goes crazy. It was a great moment. When he gave me the puck I cried. I had to heal in my heart, too.”
Ernie Hartlieb admits he wasn’t 100 percent that first year at Miami. But just getting back on the ice allowed him to regain his confidence.
Later that year, he asked Megan out. The couple was married two years ago.
Continuing the dream
Ernie and Megan Hartlieb haven’t yet gone on a honeymoon.
Ernie’s been too busy chasing his dream. Two weeks after their wedding he was signed by the St. Louis Blues organization and invited to their preseason camp.
Megan understands. She knows that with everything Ernie’s endured, any opportunity is important to him.
“I’ve seen the video of him after his accident and I didn’t even recognize him,” she says. “He was so skinny and frail. It’s amazing that he’s even playing hockey.”
His desire to win a championship is why he’s back with the Everblades for the playoffs.
After starting the season with Florida, he got called up to the American Hockey League’s Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monsters, and then was traded to the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Griffins, where he was reunited with Insana.
But when the Griffins failed to make the playoffs, he accepted an invitation to come back to Florida for a run at a Kelly Cup championship. Hartlieb made an immediate impact by scoring the first go-ahead goal in Game 4 against the South Carolina Stingrays in the first round. Florida won that game, 4-3, in overtime to advance to the conference semifinals.
“You don’t have too many opportunities like this one,” Hartlieb says. “The one thing I learned about my accident is take advantage of every opportunity. And this is a great opportunity.”
Insana says he doesn’t like to talk about that day he saw Hartlieb down on the ice. It brings back too many horrific memories. But seeing Hartlieb back playing inspires him to keep chasing the dream of playing professional hockey.
“It was motivating to play with him this season at Grand Rapids,” Insana says. “His excitement and love for the game is contagious. And to think they told him that he’d never play again and here he is still at it — that’s inspiring.”
As for his friend’s father, who pulled him out of the grave in his dream, Ernie Hartlieb wasn’t the only one to see him.
Randa says she saw him, too, on several occasions. And each time, he was smiling at her. She has hung his picture above her booth at the Cutting Edge Hair Salon as a tribute. For her, Ernie’s dream wasn’t a nightmare.
“Everyone has a guardian angel and he’s Ernie’s,” Randa Hartlieb says. “Ernie doesn’t have any fears anymore. He’s doing what he loves. He’s playing hockey and he’s living his dream.”