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Penguins Straka hospitalized with cracked vertebra

Wednesday, July 24, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penguins forward Martin Straka has a cracked vertebra in his back because of a weightlifting mishap Monday in the Czech Republic, an incident that caused him to lose feeling briefly in his extremities.

Doctors have told him he likely will be ready for the start of the NHL season in October, but he was markedly less optimistic in a phone interview yesterday from a hospital bed in his hometown of Plzen.

Online Graphic:
Injury to thoracic vertebra



"I'm already thinking about hockey, which is good, but I don't know about anything right now," he said. "The doctors are saying a lot of good things, but I think it's a little more serious than what they're telling me right now."

Straka will remain bedridden until doctors determine the next step. X-rays were to have been sent early this morning to the Penguins' team physician, Dr. Charles Burke, who is communicating with medical professionals in Plzen.

The accident occurred early Monday morning at a Plzen gym, where Straka and Penguins teammate Milan Kraft went to work out. Straka was lifting weights on a machine -- without accompaniment -- when the apparatus slid on a carpet and fell on him, trapping him and preventing him from breathing.

"It was one of those big machines, and the weight was something like 300 pounds," Straka said. "I didn't have time to move. I was doing squats, and then it just started sliding, and then I'm underneath it. The whole thing came down on me."

Kraft and another gym patron rushed to his aid, lifting the machine and keeping him immobile while someone else called an ambulance.

"Krafty really helped me a lot," Straka said. "I was in so much pain, and I'm screaming and everything, and he held me down and made sure I didn't move or anything before the ambulance got there. I was so lucky to have help there."

For a period of time he described as "just a little bit," Straka's limbs went numb.

"It was like a lot of tingling, and I was so scared. I couldn't feel anything at first, then my arms were OK right away, then my legs. That was the scariest part. You're thinking about walking."

Straka said tests conducted shortly after his arrival in the hospital confirmed he had regained full control of his extremities.

The precise nature of the injury has yet to be determined, but the preliminary view is that the vertebra, in the middle portion of his spine, had one of its two wing-shaped exterior pieces chipped. That piece is not essential, but ligament damage in that area is what appears to be causing Straka the most discomfort.

Two doctors contacted by the Post-Gazette yesterday said that an injury such as Straka's generally takes six weeks to two months to heal, although the extent of the ligament damage and other inflammation could increase that time. The Penguins' training camp begins Sept. 12, the regular season Oct. 10.

Straka, the NHL's fourth-leading scorer in 2000-01 with 95 points, was limited to 13 games last season because of a twice-broken right leg and a fractured orbital above his left eye courtesy of a teammate's inadvertent stick swipe. His star-crossed season ended with the second break of his leg March 7, in his first game back after the eye injury.

He had been planning to return to the ice for the first time next Monday, but that is on hold indefinitely.

"Can you believe this?" he said. "I was just about to go back to skating and getting ready for the season, and something else happens. I'm sure it's like a joke for everybody right now, all this stuff. That's how it feels to me, like a joke."

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