Zack Torquato had just fallen to the ice with an opponent when he felt pain.
It was in his finger, and Torquato said it felt like a stinger that occurs when a player gets slashed.
But what happened to Torquato was far worse than a stinger.
“I took my glove and the tip of my finger was missing. No nail, nothing,” he said. “The other part was in my glove. I was a little shocked.”
The injury occurred in February 2012 when Torquato’s Wheeling Nailers faced the Elmira Jackals. He fell to the ice with Elmira’s Mario Larocque, who got up first and tried to jump over Torquato. Larocque inadvertently landed on Torquato’s finger, and when he went to push off with his skate, that’s when the unthinkable happened.
The force of Larocque’s skate blade severed the tip of Torquato’s middle finger — from the knuckle to the nail.
“Just the pressure of him landing on it and pushing off kind of just popped it off,” Torquato said. “There wasn’t any blood. I grabbed my hand, got up and started kicking at the door to get off.”
Torquato spent the night in a Buffalo hospital and that’s when he learned the end of his finger couldn’t be reattached. The next morning he was transported back to Wheeling where a hand surgeon was able to stretch the existing finger back to almost its original length and, eventually, the nail grew back.
And that’s when the recovery started for Torquato — both physically and mentally.
For the first two weeks after the injury, Torquato never saw his finger. He didn’t know how much was actually missing and he questioned if he’d even be able to play hockey again.
“Mentally, it was tough,” Torquato said.
It was just as tough physically as well.
Before Torquato could even consider holding a hockey stick again, he had to re-learn everyday actions — turning a door knob and picking up objects.
“I would miss them,” he said. “It was really sensitive.”
But soon, Torquato was ready to advance from turning door knobs to shooting pucks. Considering he is a right-handed shot and the injury occurred on the same hand, this was sure to be Torquato’s biggest test.
“Hitting a puck hurt a lot,” he said. “But a month and a half later, I tried to come back. They made a special thing for my glove that the trainer had to remove at the end of practice or a game.
“I wasn’t 100 percent.”
The injury prevented Torquato from being able to take faceoffs, so he had to switch from center to wing — a position he hadn’t played in some time. In four playoff games with the Nailers, he managed a point before Wheeling was eliminated from the postseason.
With the season over, Torquato, 24, was faced with more questions.
Would any team be interested in him next season? Did he come back too soon? Would he ever be 100 percent of the hockey player he once was?
That summer, Torquato, who was Detroit’s sixth-round pick in 2007, was determined to provide the answers. He spent the summer strengthening his hand and returned to Wheeling the following season.
And then Torquato was dealt another blow.
Just six games into the season, he suffered a concussion on a hit and missed the next 26 games. Torquato returned in January and finished with 27 points in the last 39 games for the Nailers.
This season, Torquato has shown even more improvement. He was the Nailers’ leading scorer with 31 points in 25 games before signing a professional tryout agreement with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton just before Christmas.
Head coach John Hynes said he didn’t have a chance to see much of Torquato before he came up, but he was well aware of his battle back from the injury to his finger.
“Guys get hurt in a lot of different ways, but nothing like that,” Hynes said. “You can see that Zack is a real passionate player, a tough kid. Anytime someone has an injury like that happened to him, and he can come back in the same season, it speaks volumes about his desire.”
Right now, Torquato’s only desire is to remain with the Penguins. The injury to his finger and the subsequent concussion, he said, are in the past.
Although they have yielded a benefit.
“It just helps you with the mental side of the game. Everyone goes through adversity and nothing comes easy for anyone,” Torquato said. “But I feel I’m more mature on and off the ice now and I don’t take anything for granted.”