Erik Cole returned to the Canes’ lineup in Game 6 against the Edmonton Oilers just 11 weeks after having his neck broken by Brooks Orpik. Cole’s return, while ineffective that night, is looked at by many as the extra willpower that pushed the Canes to that all so memorable victory in game seven. But what would have happened if Orpik never slammed a defenseless Cole into the boards in March of 2006?
On March 4th, 2006 the Carolina Hurricanes traveled to Pittsburgh to face a Penguins team mired in mediocrity. The game meant nothing to the Penguins and everything to the soaring Hurricanes who were on the cusp of winning the Southeast Division. With roughly 14:44 left to go in the third period Erik Cole took the puck in to the Penguins end and skated to the boards in an attempt to keep the puck. Brooks Orpik followed #26 to the boards and absolutely buried a defenseless Cole face first in to the boards. The hit landed Orpik a three game suspension back in 2006, but would likely warrant much longer in today's NHL.
Laying there unable to move, Cole was eventually helped off the ice by Canes trainer Pete Friesen. He was diagnosed with two fractured vertebrae and would miss rest of the regular season - and his hockey career was hanging in the balance.
Cole was extremely lucky to not be paralyzed and even luckier that he did not need to have surgery. Instead Cole wore a brace for weeks until he was medically cleared to remove it in a clandestine meeting with a Colorado doctor that was kept quiet from everyone. At this point it was now May and the Hurricanes were thick in to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Had the Hurricanes exited the playoffs any earlier Cole’s season would have been over. Instead, as fate would have it, the Hurricanes kept playing until the very last day possible in June 2006.
With the team up three games to two and heading back to Edmonton with a chance to bring home the Cup, Cole mysteriously traveled with the team and up until the very last minute nobody knew he would play. Yet Cole suited up and took the ice, giving the Canes a massive emotional boost. As we all know it helped very little in Game 6, but his presence on home ice in Game 7 may have been that final boost of energy the players, fans, and the entire city of Raleigh needed to help bring home Lord Stanley.
So that’s how it all went down - but what if Orpik had never hit Cole on that March night?
The Alternate Version
Had Brooks Orpik never laid that vicious hit on Erik Cole one has to believe the Hurricanes would have gone on to still win the Southeast Division. Cole was one of the top scorers on the team at the time of the injury (he finished 5th in points even after only playing 60 games). But here is where the water gets murky.
Having never had to go through the trauma of watching your teammate have his neck broken and having to live with that every day, the Hurricanes still go down 2-0 to Montreal in round one. The team would quietly bow out in five games ending their season. The tragic accident that never happened was never there as inspiration when the team faced adversity. The team faced little adversity all season since Cole never went down and therefore was not prepared to deal with it in the playoffs.
As a result of this the Hurricanes would never win the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, Cole would never go on to score more than 50 points and his career would have taken a different trajectory. The motivation of having to come back and prove yourself after such an injury never occurs. Therefore Cole is never sent to Edmonton in exchange for Joni Pitkanen. Not only does this mean Pitkanen never faces his career ending injury but the Hurricanes are never treated to such memories as the Miracle Finnish in 2009.
Ultimately, Cole eventually signs elsewhere but not nearly for as big of a deal as Montreal actually gave him. As for the Canes? My guess is they would have actually made the playoffs at least once if not multiple times in later years, mostly through better draft picks facilitating an earlier rebuild.
So all in all they would not have a nine-year playoff drought on their resume, but they also would not have won the Stanley Cup in 2006.