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Rocket Grounded: Johnny Boychuk ends his NHL career due to eye injury

The “life choice” stems from the eye injury he suffered during the ‘19–20 regular season and the chronic vision problems he experienced afterwards.

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NHL: JAN 19 Islanders at Hurricanes Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Islanders announced today the sudden end of Johnny Boychuk’s hockey career, citing the eye injury he sustained this past season and the chronic vision problems he experienced afterwards.

The news was a shock, to say the least. Boychuk was cut in the eye by the skate of Montreal’s Artturi Lehkonen during a game in March, and required 90 stitches. After the NHL’s months-long pandemic pause, Boychuk was able to return for the Islanders’ play-in round against the Panthers in the summer. He took a high hit in that series’ first game and missed the majority of the Islanders’ march to the Eastern Conference Finals, returning for two games of their six game series against the Lightning.

But even during those three games in the bubble, Boychuk knew something wasn’t right. Via Arthur Staple in The Athletic:

“I didn’t see him coming and I realized I should have been able to, at least a little bit,” said Boychuk, who reported that his eye tests revealed optic nerve damage and a severe lack of peripheral vision. “I realized something was off then. And going back in (against the Lightning a month later), I noticed it for sure. Once we lost and I was out of the bubble, I definitely noticed it was worse than I thought … I knew there was something going on, but I didn’t want to think about it because I wanted to play. You try to play through everything, and I did.”

After returning home at the end of the season, he sought more diagnoses, but doctors came to the determination that continuing to play would be unsafe for him. With a family at home, the 36-year-old made the call to end his career and described the decision as a “life choice.”

You can watch his emotional Zoom call with media below. He talks about going to doctors for months, having optic nerve damage “and some other stuff” and having the decision to end your career put into very stark perspective. He gets choked up more than a few times. You will, too.

It’s here that we’ll note that Boychuk has not retired and most likely will not. He has two seasons remaining on his contract with the Islanders at an AAV of $6 million per. He has been placed on IR (according to CapFriendly) and will most likely be placed on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) later, which would allow GM Lou Lamoriello to exceed the salary cap by $6 million.

How this affects Lamoriello’s plans to sign restricted free agent Mathew Barzal, as well as UFAs Cory Schneider, Matt Martin and deadline acquisition Andy Greene, who filled in ably for Boychuk on defense throughout the playoffs, will become more clear in the next little while. All three reportedly have deals on the table that are just waiting to be signed.

Boychuk came to the Islanders in September of 2014 via a major trade with Boston, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2011. In the same stunning Saturday afternoon, Nick Leddy was also acquired by GM Garth Snow, and the two became D-partners for the better part of the next six seasons. They also both signed long term deals the following summer, helping the Islanders gain a measure of credibility and stability that they hadn’t had in quite a while.

In 404 games with the Islanders, Boychuk scored 35 goals and 96 assists for 131 points. In his first game in blue and orange, he unleashed a slapshot that few knew he had and scored the team’s first goal of the season. While he never became the powerplay weapon some of us may have envisioned (mainly due to his penalty killing duties), Boychuk was an all-situations, all-game, all-season, all-weather machine, scoring big goals, laying big hits, making big blocks and bringing that big grin game-in and game-out.

He became not just a reliable presence on the ice, but a beloved one off of it, too. Boychuk settled into the role of Team Dad, while also being the same smiling goofball he always was (Remember that menswear magazine photoshoot that included him and Leddy? Pepperidge Farm remembers.)

His loss will be a huge one for the Islanders (more so now without Devon Toews back there, too) and it’s a shame to see a player known for his perseverance have to leave the game this way. But it’s impossible to argue that he’s not making the right decision for him and his family.

Johnny Boychuk will be an Islanders legend forever. Feels like we’ll be seeing him around the Island a lot, even if he’s not in uniform.