Tariq Hammond’s career as an elite hockey player could have ended 3 minutes and 10 seconds into the third period of the biggest game of his career. Seventeen months later, the two men most responsible for getting him back on the ice meet in an exam room. One of them is Dr. Kenneth Hunt, a surgeon specializing in foot and ankle orthopedics and the medical director of the UCHealth Foot and Ankle Center in Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood. The other is Hammond himself.
The 6-foot-2, 193-pound Hammond was, as the New York Times described him, the University of Denver’s “most bruising defender.” On April 8, 2017, with 16:50 left in the third period of the 2017 “Frozen Four” national championship final in Chicago, DU was up 3-1. Its most bruising defender was on the ice. The puck ricocheted into the corner to the left of the DU goalie. Hammond chased it down. A University of Minnesota Duluth player did too. They both went down, with Hammond sliding awkwardly into the boards first. The DU junior’s right ankle bore the brunt. ESPN announcer Barry Melrose winced at the replay: “Oooh. That was ugly.”
DU hung on to win its eighth national championship. Hammond came back out to the ice to celebrate, on crutches, his ankle in a boot. Considering the injury, this alone was heroic.
The doctors at Chicago’s United Center had managed to shift Hammond’s dislocated ankle back into place. They couldn’t fix the broken talus bone where the foot and ankle meet. That job would fall to Hunt 10 days later, when the swelling subsided enough to operate.
“It was a highly severe injury, and the reason I say that is the bone was broken in several places, and the joints connecting that bone to other bones were dislocated,” Hunt said. “It wasn’t just a fracture of the bone. It was a disruption of ligaments and joint linings and dislocations.” It was, he added, the sort of high-energy injury he might see after a car, motorcycle or ski accident.
To the OR
The two-hour procedure involved screws, plates and other hardware to hold the various chunks and fragments of Hammond’s talus in their proper places so they could heal. As soon as he could, Hammond started rehabilitation. It involved three to four hours a day in the gym and in the DU training room. Despite Hammond’s ice time being limited to cold packs on his reconstructed ankle, his teammates chose him as their team captain. He was gunning for a return by the official start of training in August. Then came a worrisome scan result. “One of the fracture lines wasn’t healing as well as we wanted it to,” Hunt said.
There were two options. One was to let nature take its course, but that would take longer, and there was a risk that the fracture wouldn’t close on its own. The other was to harvest bone from Hammond’s hip, fill in the gap, and secure the fix with more screws. That would boost his chances of playing hockey during his senior season, which would boost his chances of pursuing a dream of his since he was a kid in Calgary: playing in the NHL one day. Hammond chose to do the surgery. It was a setback, but he was skating – if still a long way from playing hockey – a month or so later.
The season started without him, but on November 17 at DU’s Magness Arena home ice, Hammond made his season debut against North Dakota. The ankle, still sore and yet to fully heal, was strong enough to play on. He played, trained, studied finance and marketing, and rehabbed the ankle through the rest of the season. DU made it to the NCAA quarterfinals in March. Just after that, Hammond, 24, flew to Binghamton, N.Y., for an amateur tryout with the American Hockey League affiliate of NHL’s New Jersey Devils. He played in five games over two weekends in Binghamton, Syracuse and Utica, N.Y.; Hartford, Conn.; and Wilkes-Barre, Penn. Then it was up to the Devils organization whether or not to sign him to a minor-league contract. They did. His one-year deal starts in September.
In this UCHealth Foot and Ankle Center exam room, Hammond is wearing a DU Hockey ballcap and athletic shirt and Binghamton Devils shorts (he’s headed over to help out at DU coach David Carle’s hockey camp after this appointment). He hasn’t seen Hunt since November. He shares the good news about the contract; the doctor congratulates his patient. The conversation turns to the ankle.
It’s still stiff in the morning or if he’s been sitting a while, Hammond says. Hunt flexes it and says there’s still slightly less range of motion than before the injury, but that the stiffness will improve with time as he keeps rehabbing – it’s only been a year since the second surgery, after all. There’s no hint of arthritis or bone spurs. Hunt dons a lead vest and drapes one over Hammond. A scan right there in the exam room shows a cluster of screws through ghostly bone. They’ll stay put. “I don’t anticipate you needing any more surgery,” Hunt says. “I don’t think the metal’s ever going to bother you.”
Though the ankle could handle it, Hammond tells Hunt he has avoided running (he gets his cardio on the ice or on an exercise bike) and that has made some minor adjustments in the weight room, such as sliding a thin weight below his right heel to avoid over-flexing the ankle in the depths of a set of squats.
“The best I feel is when I skate,” Hammond says.
“That’s probably a good thing for a hockey player,” Hunt says.
Hunt walks Hammond down the hall to the UCHealth Foot and Ankle Center’s latest addition: the clinical motion and performance laboratory. It’s the only facility of its kind in the region, a 1,000-square-foot space dedicated to tracking and measuring dynamic motion and load profiles to assess problems and guide treatment of injuries or chronic conditions associated with (or emanating from) the symphony of 26 bones, 33 joints, more than 100 ligaments, tendons and muscles in the human foot.
The kinetic chain
Athletic trainer Danielle Lewis sticks white reflectors the size of cereal puffs to the knuckle above his second toes, the protrusion of his ankle bones, and heels. Eight cameras haloed with bright LEDs high on the walls will track the reflectors as cameras in front of and behind Hammond film his movement. Sara Andrews, the biomedical engineer who leads the clinical motion and performance lab, says some patients will spot reflectors all the way up to the hip. That’s to monitor the influence of foot issues up through the body and vice-versa.
“We can see very accurately their alignment, where they’re putting pressure on their foot during various gait activities, and the ranges of motion on the joints,” Hunt adds. “And we can see the influence of the foot and ankle higher on the kinetic chain – how it impacts, or is impacted by, the knee and hip.”
On cue, Hammond walks across force plates set up in a vaguely hopscotch pattern and a mat like a hallway runner rug that records the pressure exerted as Hammond strides over it.
Back in the exam room, Hunt walks though the results. Everything looks fine.
“From an ankle standpoint, you’re clear,” he tells Hammond. Later, Hunt describes Hammond as having a great attitude, with a work ethic that was a big contributor to an outcome that has him back on track to play professional hockey.
“He’s the type of patient that I love taking care of. He’s motivated, he’s very interested in returning to sport, he’s passionate, but he also follows the rules,” Hunt says. “Very level head, very pragmatic, very intelligent.”
Hammond says the New Jersey Devils’ team doctors had been impressed with Hunt’s work. He also appreciates Hunt’s approach outside the OR.
“He’s always up-front and honest with me,” Hammond says. “He told me, ‘There’s going to be some things that are different.’ That’s tough to hear, but it helped me get where I am now.”