NHL ref Steve Kozari stretchered off the ice
(Screenshot/ NHL on ABC)

In a frightening moment during Saturday’s game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, veteran NHL referee Steve Kozari was stretchered off the ice after a collision with Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury.

The incident occurred 6:11 into the third period at center ice, as the Penguins began to advance the puck out of their defensive zone.

Kozari and Fleury collided at high speed, with the referee’s head appearing to strike the ice as he fell. Kozari lay motionless for several minutes as medical personnel tended to him, while Fleury was also slow to get up, bleeding from the collision.

After a lengthy delay, Kozari was carefully placed on a stretcher and taken off the ice. He appeared to be moving his arms and hands, a positive sign.

The NHL later provided an update, stating Kozari was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons. They said he was “conscious and alert, has the use of all of his extremities and is expected to make a full recovery.”

“Referee Steve Kozari was transported to UPMC Mercy hospital for precautionary reasons after a collision with Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury in the third period of the Penguins-Lightning game this afternoon. Kozari is conscious and alert, has the use of all of his extremities and is expected to make a full recovery.”

Fleury did not return to the game after the incident. “That was tough to watch,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I went into the locker room during that pause. Naturally, (Fleury) was a little shook up. It was just one of those plays that was kind of a freak accident. But hopefully, both guys will be OK.”

The Penguins went on to win the game 5-4, but thoughts remained with Kozari after the final buzzer. The 47-year-old Penticton, British Columbia native has been an NHL referee since the 2006-07 season. He worked his 1,000th career game on March 12 in Washington.

Unfortunately, injuries to on-ice officials do happen from time to time in the fast-paced sport of hockey. Just last season, linesman Jonny Murray needed surgery after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus damage when he got tangled up with players in a March 2023 game between the Bruins and Penguins.

In 2019, referee Wes McCauley had to leave a playoff game in San Jose after a collision with Vegas forward William Carrier. And one of the scariest incidents occurred in 2008, when linesman Pat Dapuzzo suffered career-ending facial injuries after being cut by a skate blade.

The NHL Officials Association said in a statement:

“We are deeply concerned about the injury to Steve Kozari in tonight’s game and are hopeful he will have a quick and full recovery. Steve is a highly respected referee who has served the game with excellence and integrity for 17 seasons. The safety of our members is of paramount importance and we will be following up with the League to discuss this incident and work to enhance protections for our officials.”

As the Stanley Cup playoffs approach, the NHL will hope for the healthy return of one of its top referees in Kozari. But Saturday’s incident served as another stark reminder of the risks these officials face in bringing us the game we love.