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January 8, 2023 began as a typical game day for Justin Kirkland. He took a nap, ate his pre-game meal and headed to Honda Center for a 5:30 p.m. start against the league-leading Boston Bruins. After toiling for 6½ years in the American Hockey League, Kirkland was about to skate in his eighth straight NHL game.
“It was the best time in my life,” he said.
In the blink of an eye, it became the worst.
Kirkland doesn’t remember many details from that commute that included an unplanned stop along a transition road from the northbound 55 Freeway to the northbound 5. He doesn’t remember his truck sideswiping an SUV, and then cutting across all the lanes on the 5 Freeway before hitting the center median.
“I sort of had little flashes of being in the ambulance, and then in and out,” he said.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital bed at UCI Health with his wife, Madison, and his coach, Dallas Eakins, at his bedside.
“I remember things very vividly because it was so scary that he had just passed out at the wheel on a wicked busy highway in Southern California,” said Eakins, now the GM and coach for Adler Mannheim in the DEL. “Justin literally looked like he had been hit by a truck. His face was messed up. His shoulder was messed up. He was awake and coherent, but he just wasn’t all there.”
Kirkland, 27, still isn’t ready to discuss all the medical details that precipitated that terrifying event, but one day after he skated in his ninth NHL game (his first for the Coyotes), and exactly one year after the accident, he and Madison discussed that life-altering moment.
“It has been the darkest, most awful year and he’s really hoping to see the light from it all now,” Madison said. “He went through something unbelievably crazy that didn’t end with the crash. I know it was on his mind before going into [Sunday’s] game. He certainly wasn’t sure if he would ever play hockey again, let alone survive the accident.”
Kirkland had the same dream that many Canadian boys have growing up. He wanted to play in the NHL. After Kirkland’s first full season with the Kelowna Rockets alongside former Coyotes prospect Nick Merkley, the Nashville Predators selected him in the third round (No. 62) of the 2014 NHL Draft.
He never got a whiff of the NHL with Nashville or his second team, the Calgary Flames. Instead, he signed a one-year, two-way deal with Anaheim in July of 2022, all the while knowing that he was getting older and his chances of achieving his dream were decreasing.
“You grind for seven years in the minors, wondering, ‘Is this ever gonna happen? Am I ever gonna get a look?’ he said. “I was fortunate that Anaheim saw something in me and believed in me.”
That’s what made the accident all the more difficult. Kirkland was out for 11-12 weeks and when he returned to the franchise for the final month of the season on a one-year contract, the opportunity was gone and he was back in the AHL with San Diego.
“When you think of all the possibilities, this certainly wouldn’t be on your bingo card of things that might derail your dream,” Eakins said. “It’s more understandable when it’s something that happens on the ice. It’s way less understandable when it’s something like this. It can almost feel like the universe is working against you.”
It felt that way to Kirkland. It was bad enough that he was stuck in a city far away from home, but then he got Covid and had to isolate. The final stroke came in the form of a phone call. One of his best friends, Nathan Saby, had passed away.
“It felt like everything was just piling on,” he said. “It was by far the lowest point of my life. I wanted to go home so bad.”
The road to recovery
When Kirkland returned to the ice for the Gulls in March, he admits he still wasn’t physically or mentally ready to resume his career. But with his 27th birthday in sight, he knew he had no choice.
“I think more guys go through this sort of pressure than the public realizes,” Eakins said. “They give everything they can to chase their dream but along the way, they start to realize that the sacrifice being given is not their sacrifice. It’s the sacrifice of their wives or girlfriends, their moms or dads, their brothers or sisters, because everyone has given up a whole lot somewhere along the way to enable all of us to chase our dream. As you get older and are still scraping and clawing to get it, it’s almost like an extra weight you carry.”
With the support of Madison, his family and his friends, Kirkland slowly healed his body and mind.
“I was lucky to get a full summer of training in and work my ass off to get into the best shape that I could,” he said. “Going into free agency, I didn’t really have anything so I started to look at other opportunities in different leagues. Luckily, Arizona made an offer. For me, even just signing a two-way contract, I felt like I had made it again.”
The Coyotes recalled Kirkland on an emergency loan on Dec. 23, but he was reassigned the following day without ever playing. All the time he was in Tucson, coach Steve Potvin described him as the model teammate.
“He didn’t one time show or play the card of the victim. He simply went about his work every day,” Potvin said. “I bet if I asked any one of our players in the room if they really understood his story at length or in depth, not many would know it. It says a lot about his character and his mindset. The person is an absolute giver.”
When Kirkland found out that he was going to play against Winnipeg on Sunday, he phoned good friend Curtis Nigh to deliver the news and Nigh told him he was flying out to see the game.
“We were together when we got the lineups [Sunday] and it was awesome,” Kirkland said. “We were jumping up and down in my hotel room like we were five years old again.”
When he finally addressed reporters briefly after the game, it was easy to understand why Kirkland’s emotions overwhelmed him. He had finally come full circle, closing the loop to put his dream back on track.
As the reporters filed out of the Coyotes dressing room, Kirkland slumped in his stall with his face in his hands, tears streaming down his face.
“I’ve never dealt with anything like that before but it changed my life forever,” he said Monday.
“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect over the last year on what’s really important in life. Obviously, growing up in Canada, it’s been hockey, hockey, hockey. I want to be a hockey player, I want to be an NHL player. You grind and you grind and you grind. Then something like that happens and you sit back and you go, ‘I’m lucky to be alive, let alone to still be able to play pro and work my way back here.’”
Top photo of Coyotes forward Justin Kirkland via Norm Hall, Getty Images
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