White Coat Black Art26:30The Habs’ team doctor is a true hockey hero
There’s no shortage of legendary figures in Montreal Canadiens lore.
But this season, the NHL team had to say goodbye to one of its most unsung icons.
In September, after 60 years of service with the organization, thoracic surgeon Dr. David Mulder retired from his role as the team’s head physician. (As an 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 potentially life-altering injuries for players like Trent McCleary and Max Pacioretty.
With all the successes and surgeries, Mulder says he couldn’t have achieved anything without his medical team.
“Maybe the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from playing team sports … and from looking after the Montreal Canadiens, is that I treat every operation now as a team sport,” he told White Coat, Black Art’s Dr. Brian Goldman.
“We have an anesthesiologist, we have a circulating nurse, and nothing gets done well unless we have the whole team onside. So there’s nothing more important than the team concept.”
Mulder grew up playing hockey himself in the small town of Eston, Sask., and graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1962. He did his training in general surgery at Montreal General Hospital from 1963 to 1967, and earned a master’s degree in science from McGill University in 1964.
His sporting career as a physician began with the Montreal Junior Canadiens of the Ontario Hockey Association in 1963. He then joined the Montreal Voyageurs — the Montreal Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate — before being promoted to the NHL team as an assistant physician in 1969.
In 1999, he succeeded Dr. Douglas G. Kinnear as the team’s head physician.
Mulder has treated some of the team’s greatest players and been a part of eight Stanley Cup championships.
“He’s set the bar,” said Trent McCleary, a former Canadiens player. “He’s the standard. He’s the template for doctoring in the NHL.”
A brutal job
Hockey has always been a dangerous sport, but it was especially true when Mulder first joined the Habs organization in the late ’60s.
“They wore no helmets, no masks, no visors. They had shin pads and shoulder pads. Those were the basics,” he said.
Goalie masks were neither a regular nor mandatory part of the game. Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante debuted his basic fibreglass mask in 1959, but some NHL goalies played maskless until the mid-1970s.
Mulder said sewing cuts on goalies’ faces was a common occurrence in those days.
“We had a clinic at the old Forum right off the ice surface,” he said, referring to the Canadiens’ old home arena, “and so we sewed them up right away and got them back on the ice.”
Over his career, Mulder has seen far worse injuries than simple cuts.
In 2000, he was called into action when forward Trent McCleary took a slapshot directly to the throat, after McCleary dropped down to block a shot from the Philadelphia Flyers’ Chris Therien. The puck crushed McCleary’s larynx and collapsed his lung.
“The pain was immense immediately … it was hard to breathe,” McCleary said. “It felt like breathing through a straw and somebody was slowly pinching the straw and I just couldn’t get any air.”
McCleary was helped to the bench, where he collapsed into Mulder’s arms. From there, McCleary was taken to Montreal General Hospital by ambulance, as Mulder and general surgeon Dr. David Fleischer took turns holding his larynx open to control his airway.
This task was difficult in and of itself, but trying to keep McCleary subdued made it more challenging.
“I wasn’t the most benign patient,” McCleary said he was told of that night. “I threw one of my trainers over the bench just panicking, trying to grab my throat.”
“Thank goodness we had trainers in numbers, because as you can imagine, I’m thrashing around in an absolute panic with skates on and fists and just trying to trying to survive.”
As Mulder and Fleischer kept his larynx open, McCleary was taken directly to an operating room at Montreal General Hospital. He underwent a tracheotomy and then had his larynx reconstructed the following day.
White Coat Black Art13:50Former NHLer Trent McCleary on the night Dr. David Mulder saved his life
A lasting impact
McCleary’s injury — and Mulder’s role in treating it — had a lasting impact beyond the rink.
“We presented his case to the NHL team physicians,” Mulder said. The NHL made it mandatory for the team doctor to be seated 25 to 50 feet from the arena’s clinic.
“So that automatically meant you’re right behind the bench — and that’s two seats that they can’t sell,” Mulder said.
McCleary said that prior to his injury, doctors would often sit high above the ice, meaning it would usually take the team physician several minutes to get down to the benches.
“I think Montreal was the only team that had [doctors] basically right beside the ice,” McCleary said. “I said if they would have been [seated higher up], I would have died.”
In 2011, Mulder had to treat then-Canadiens player Max Pacioretty after he hit a metal stanchion in the rink during play, injuring his head and brain. Pacioretty was taken to Montreal General Hospital, where he took a CT scan and an MRI, among other tests.
Mulder said Pacioretty’s parents were at the game and concerned for his safety. By the time they were able to talk to him, Pacioretty was responsive and not paralyzed.
“The important thing about my relationship with the team is that it was based at the Montreal General Hospital, and it’s a trauma centre,” Mulder said. “It’s very close, and if you look at the history, proximity to the hospital is a big factor. So that saved things that day.”
Following Pacioretty’s injury, the NHL changed the stanchions’ square shape to rounded ones, with additional padding.
Mulder has seen attitudes toward concussions change, from an era when it was more conservative and secretive to today, where it’s openly talked about.
“Management don’t question it anymore,” he said. “If we think someone should sit out, we sit them out, even if it’s a relatively minor thing.”
Mulder says he hopes the NHL will eventually ban fighting in the game as a next step in minimizing concussions.
“My view is that the goal of a fight is to produce a concussion. It’s just to create a brain injury,” he said.
Trauma care reforms
Mulder’s impact goes beyond hockey. A trauma centre in Montreal General Hospital is named after him, in part because he helped restructure trauma care in Quebec.
In the early 1990s, the mortality rate of people with traumatic injuries entering Quebec hospitals was about 50 per cent, according to Mulder. This was in stark contrast to rates in the U.S., which Mulder said were below 10 per cent.
The U.S. “developed the concept of trauma centres, where instead of going to the nearest hospital, you went to a hospital that could deal with major trauma,” he said.
Following the establishment of a Quebec-wide trauma system in 1993 — for which Dr. Mulder was a driving force — the mortality rate dropped to 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 development has been “monumental,” he said.
More than a doctor
McCleary attempted to make a return to hockey at the start of the 2000-01 season, appearing in an exhibition game with the Canadiens.
But he couldn’t complete a shift, leading Mulder to withdraw McCleary’s medical clearance (which eventually led to the player’s retirement). McCleary said the news was a relief in a sense. And he’s glad he got it from Mulder directly.
“I wouldn’t want to get bad news from anybody else,” McCleary said, stressing “the compassion that [Mulder] has, the knowledge that he has, the experience.”
“He was more than just a doctor. He was a friend.”
Mulder’s treatment philosophy goes back to advice he once received from a player: Canadiens hockey icon Jean Béliveau.
“He said to me, ‘Always remember when you’re treating a patient that the goal is to do what’s best for the patient,'” said Mulder.
“‘Ignore the press, ignore management and ignore the fans and do what’s best for the player.’ Probably the most important bit of advice that I’ve ever received.”