white coat, black art26:30Habs team doctor is a true hockey hero
There is no shortage of legendary figures in the history of the Montreal Canadiens.
But this season, the NHL team had to say goodbye to one of its most unsung icons.
In September, after 60 years of service to the organization, thoracic surgeon Dr. David Mulder retired from his position as the team’s chief physician. (As emeritus, he can still act as an advisor.)
As a member of the Canadiens, Mulder has seen it all, from eight Stanley Cup championships to life-altering injuries to players like Trent McCleary and Max Pacioretty.
With all the successes and surgeries, Mulder says he couldn’t have accomplished anything without his medical team.
“Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned playing team sports … and taking care of the Montreal Canadiens, is that I now treat every operation as a team sport,” he said. White coat, black art Dr. Brian Goldman.
“We have an anesthesiologist, we have a circulating nurse, and nothing gets done right unless we have the entire team by our side. So there’s nothing more important than the team concept.”
Mulder grew up playing hockey in the small town of Eston, Sask., and graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1962. He did his general surgery training at Montreal General Hospital from 1963 to 1967, and earned a master of science degree from University McGill in 1964.
His sports career as a doctor began with the Montreal Junior Canadiens of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1963. He then joined the Montreal Voyageurs, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, before being promoted to the team of the NHL as assistant doctor in 1969.
In 1999, he succeeded Dr. Douglas G. Kinnear as the team’s chief physician.
Mulder has handled some of the team’s best players and has been a part of eight Stanley Cup championships.
“He’s set the bar,” former Canadiens player Trent McCleary said. “He’s the standard. He’s the model for medicine in the NHL.”
A brutal job
Hockey has always been a dangerous sport, but it was especially so when Mulder first joined the Habs organization in the late ’60s.
“They weren’t wearing helmets, masks, or visors. They had shin guards and shoulder pads. That was the basics,” he said.
Goalie masks were not a regular or mandatory part of the game. Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante debuted his basic fiberglass mask in 1959, but some NHL goalies played without a mask until the mid-1970s.
Mulder said stitching cuts on bouncers’ faces was common in those days.
“We had a clinic at the old Forum right next to the ice surface,” he said, referring to the Canadiens’ old stadium, “so we sewed them up right away and put them back on the ice.”
Throughout his career, Mulder has suffered injuries far worse than simple cuts.
In 2000, he was called into action when forward Trent McCleary took a slap directly to the throat, after McCleary dropped to block a shot from Chris Therien of the Philadelphia Flyers. The disc crushed McCleary’s larynx and collapsed his lung.
“The pain was immense right away…it was hard to breathe,” McCleary said. “It felt like I was breathing through a straw and someone was slowly pinching it and I just couldn’t breathe.”
McCleary was helped to the bench, where he collapsed into Mulder’s arms. From there, McCleary was taken by ambulance to Montreal General Hospital, while Mulder and general surgeon Dr. David Fleischer took turns holding his larynx open to control his airway.
This task was difficult in itself, but trying to keep McCleary subdued made it even more challenging.
“He wasn’t the most benign patient,” McCleary said he was told that night. “I threw one of my sneakers over the bench in a panic, trying to grab my throat.”
“Thank God we had a lot of coaches, because as you can imagine, I’m running around in absolute panic with skates and fists and just trying to survive.”
While Mulder and Fleischer held his larynx open, McCleary was taken directly to an operating room at Montreal General Hospital. He underwent a tracheostomy and had his larynx reconstructed the next day.
white coat, black art13:50Former NHL player Trent McCleary on the night Dr. David Mulder saved his life
A lasting impact
McCleary’s injury (and Mulder’s role in his treatment) had a lasting impact beyond the track.
“We presented his case to the NHL team doctors,” Mulder said. The NHL made it mandatory for the team doctor to sit 25 to 50 feet from the stadium clinic.
“So that automatically means you’re right behind the bench, and that’s two seats they can’t sell,” Mulder said.
McCleary said that before his injury, doctors often sat high above the ice, meaning it took several minutes for the team doctor to reach the benches.
“I think Montreal was the only team that had [doctors] basically right next to the ice,” McCleary said. “I said if they had been [seated higher up]”I would have died.”
In 2011, Mulder had to treat then-Canadiens player Max Pacioretty after he hit a metal post on the ice during the game, injuring his head and brain. Pacioretty was taken to Montreal General Hospital, where he underwent a CT scan and an MRI, among other tests.
Mulder said Pacioretty’s parents were at the game and were concerned for his safety. When they were able to talk to him, Pacioretty was responsive and she was not paralyzed.
“The important thing about my relationship with the team is that it was based at Montreal General Hospital and it is a trauma center,” Mulder said. “It’s very close, and if you look at history, proximity to the hospital is a big factor. So that saved things that day.”
Following Pacioretty’s injury, the NHL changed the uprights from a square shape to rounded, with additional padding.
Mulder has seen attitudes towards concussions change, from a time when they were more conservative and reserved to today, where they are talked about openly.
“Management no longer questions it,” he said. “If we think someone should not participate, we expel them, even if it’s something relatively minor.”
Mulder says he hopes the NHL will eventually ban in-game fighting as a next step to minimize concussions.
“My opinion is that the goal of a fight is to create a concussion. It’s just to create a brain injury,” he said.
Trauma care reforms
Mulder’s impact goes beyond hockey. A trauma center at Montreal General Hospital is named after him, in part because he helped restructure trauma care in Quebec.
In the early 1990s, the mortality rate for people with traumatic injuries admitted to Quebec hospitals was around 50 per cent, according to Mulder. This was in stark contrast to rates in the United States, which Mulder said were below 10 percent.
The United States “developed the concept of trauma centers, where instead of going to the nearest hospital, you went to a hospital that could treat severe trauma,” he said.
Following the establishment of a Quebec-wide trauma system in 1993, of which Dr. Mulder was a driving force, the mortality rate fell below 10 per cent.
Mulder says the province now has a good reputation in terms of trauma centres, with facilities in Montreal, Sherbrooke and Quebec City.
In terms of health care, this advance has been “monumental,” he said.
More than a doctor
McCleary attempted to return to hockey at the beginning of the 2000-01 season, appearing in an exhibition game with the Canadiens.
But he was unable to complete a shift, leading Mulder to withdraw McCleary’s medical clearance (which ultimately led to the player’s retirement). McCleary said the news was a relief in some ways. And he’s glad he got it directly from Mulder.
“I wouldn’t want to hear bad news from anyone else,” McCleary said, noting “the compassion that [Mulder] “he has, the knowledge he has, the experience.”
“He was more than just a doctor. He was a friend.”
Mulder’s treatment philosophy dates back to advice he once received from a player: Canadiens hockey icon Jean Béliveau.
“He told me, ‘Always remember when treating a patient that the goal is to do what’s best for the patient,'” Mulder said.
“‘Ignore the press, ignore the management and ignore the fans and do what’s best for the player.’ Probably the most important advice I’ve ever received.”