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Long Road Ahead for this Ref

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During the last meeting of the 2021-2022 season between the Boston Bruins and the Golden Knights in March of last year, veteran Referee Natalie Solo had a run in with ex-Bruin, Andre Delgrovia, former Bruins Defenseman (currently playing for Jokerit, a KHL team in Helsinki, Finland). she’ll both never forget and never remember all at the same time.

Skating by the Golden Knights bench, Natalie put her hand out to tap the gate like she usually did – a habit she’d picked up while reffing Peewee hockey in Ajax, Ontario during her high school years and done to ensure no one got hurt during play along the board by an opened gate, when Left Winger Andre Delgrovia of the visiting Boston Bruins who'd been called for a 4 minute double minor for high sticking Defenseman Jason Grier in the opposite corner mere minutes before, came speeding up behind her. What happened next, Natalie doesn't know.  But the cameras do.

With his stick across his chest, Delgrovia came at her on the angle, shoved her violently against the boards along the bench, which caught her off guard and unable to stop her fall. Unfortunately for her timing, she didn’t fall easily against the boards; instead she fell into the Golden Knights bench due to the gate which had just been opened for a shift change.

In the split second between her being hit and then falling, Delgrovia bent slightly, and, with the butt of his stick, with much more force than he'd used to fell her, rammed it down onto the back of her helmeted head. Then, even as a Linesman grabbed one of his arms to yank him away from the injured Ref, he used the same end of his stick to spear the side of her head, puncturing her ear drum in doing so, before shaking off the Linesman's hold and skating directly across the ice to the dressing room. Surrounded by the stunned silence of the entire arena.

As Solo was taken care of at ice level, and then eventually carted off the ice on a stretcher still unconscious and bleeding from her ear and nose, not a single syllable was uttered by anyone in attendance. Even long after the buzzer went to signify the end of the second, when play did finally resume after a full 7 minutes, no one moved from their seats. Even the teams stayed either on the ice where'd they'd just been or the bench. Still trying to desperately process what they'd just seen.

"I still get asked what I felt by a lot of people," Solo, 34, said, sitting in the backyard of the North Georgina Ontario home she shares with her husband, Toronto Maple Leaf Defenseman and fan favourite Illya Kuryakin, and 5-year-old Yuri. "And, the truth is, nothing. I felt nothing." Her hand came up to press against the side of her head with the damaged ear drum and rubbed, "just a quick shove then nothing. Lots of tinnitus now though."

She spent two weeks in hospital to correct a collapsed lung due to the awkwardness of her fall, punctured ear drum, and help her through the worst of Post-Concussion Syndrome, which unfortunately for her included vomit inducing migraines, slips of consciousness and loss of balance. But, it was when she finally returned home (back then a condo in the Downtown Core), when things finally started "getting real" for her.

“You go home and suddenly you're on your own again," She started by saying, "Illya had taken leave from the team the night it happened, and had stayed with me day in, day out. Taking the brunt of everything, both physically and emotionally." A soft appreciative smile curled her lip, thinking about the unending love and sport of her husband of 6 years. "He's been my rock through all of this."

Natalie's attention then falls to the simple white gold wedding band on her finger, something found on a chain around her neck during the season. "I wasn't myself during that time.” A comment shared by most that have suffered from Post-Concussion Syndrome. “I had trouble regulating my temper, my voice, my impulses -" all well documented symptoms of Post-Concussion Syndrome. "I couldn't hear out one ear,” she pulled on the lobe of the offending ear. “I was still black and blue from head to toe, in a tremendous amount of pain, and incredibly confused and frustrated and it scared me, but it definitely scared Yuri so much more."

For the first 3 days after returning home her son, then just turned 4, would not even pass the open door to their bedroom without coaxing, never mind come over the threshold to visit her. "I was quite sure I'd never ever get the relationship I had had with him back." You can literally watch the heartbreak blossom on her face as she works up the courage to talk about the strained interactions with her son during that time.

"Illya brought him in once. In his arms." Her right hand pats her left shoulder, showing where Yuri was on Illya. Her eyes flutter slowly. "He couldn't even look at me; he kept his face buried in his dad's shoulder the whole time.” The hand still on her shoulder begins to rub it in a slow up and down motion before dropping quickly as sad smile blooms on her face. “It killed me, it really did."

Asked if she had recovered, she shook her head again. "It may take years."

Her answer succinct and incredibly heartbreaking. "I still get crippling headaches, the tinnitus gets so bad at times I want to scream or cry, I get dizzy when my blood pressure gets too high, my balance is still shot because of my ear and," her ears burn bright red suddenly as she bows her head, "I get inexplicably angry at the slightest provocation. I can't go back. Not yet."

But, thankfully, it isn't all doom and gloom. Illya just come off a career year - 34 goals, 41 points and the lowest PIM total of his entire career, 78. Yuri just got an award for perfect attendance for the school year at his school, Fairly Wood P.S., and received Student of the Month for the Month of June in his Grade 1 class. "He's incredibly smart." Natalie brags, her blue eyes shining behind her sunglasses. The subject of her praise just 10 feet away on his swing set (decked out in blue and white, of course). "He's one of the best at math in his class and I've gotten phone calls from his teacher and principal telling me about countless time he's done something nice for students both in his class and during recess. There's a lot of gloom lately, personally and professional - but he's been the brightest part of my life since the day he was born, and he keeps on surprisingly Illya and I every day."

And, I coax her on, knowing there was something else going on with the Solo-Kuryakin's. "And, we know, before he gets much older we want to give him a sibling. We'd be planning for that even before I got hurt. We're working on it, even as we work through everything else." Her eyes brighten yet again as her flawless teeth finally appear as she grins. "I'm really excited for the future, no matter what I’m going through right now…it’s going to be great. I’ve no doubt!"

Andre Delgrovia was suspended for rest of the regular season, the playoffs, and 4 games at the start of next season. However, at the end of the season last year Delgrovia announced, with little fanfare, that he was retiring from the NHL and was KHL bound.

2 years remain on Delgrovia's 5 year, 3.7 million contract with the Bruins.

- Chloe MacPhail
(Toronto Star)