BOSTON -- If you're watching the puck, you miss the hit.
You hear the crowd change tones. Then you see them up on their feet, arms waving wildly, and not because Milan Lucic took a shot in a scoreless Stanley Cup Final game. They are gesturing at Nathan Horton.
He is laid out on the ice.
Horton isn't writhing in pain. He isn't covering his face with his glove or squeezing his eyes shut and grinding his teeth. He's laying on his back, eyes open, staring straight at the ceiling as though frozen in time. The irregular, convulsing rise and fall of his chest is the most of Horton's movement and it's odd. You'd rather he be kicking his legs and swearing instead of just laying there with doll's eyes unseeing.
Horton's head was down when Aaron Rome's shoulder knocked him out of the air. The Bruin had completed a pass to Milan Lucic and he watched the puck as everyone else in the building did, except Rome. He targeted Horton and followed through on the hit, even though it connected late, and high.
As Horton falls backwards, his arms fly up. The right one stays up once he's motionless on the ice, suspended sickeningly in the air. Why? Why is it like that? Does Horton even know his arm is still up?
The crowd's anger turns to murmurs.
They're simmering up in the media halo, too.
"I rode up in the elevator with the EMT's," a reporter says, pointing to the stretcher being wheeled onto the ice. "One said, 'I hope no one needs this tonight.' "
A police officer stands idly, watching a replay of the Horton hit on TV.
"Everyone wearing a Vancouver jersey is getting their ass kicked tonight," he says.
But the Canucks feel no better than anyone.
They stand in a line, watching Horton not move, and tap their sticks on the ice in good faith. They've seen something like it before. Even, or especially, Aaron Rome, who fell victim to a questionable hit during the Western Conference Finals.
The players hurt for Horton. They're also glad it wasn't them.
Everyone in TD Garden is standing as Horton is backboarded and strapped to the stretcher. It's been at least five minutes; TV's have gone to commercial. And why not? The alternative is a brief documentary on why hockey is a dangerous sport. We all know what happened, or think we know. We're thinking of Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby . . . maybe even Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine.
"Well, he won't play hockey for the rest of the year," someone says.
What about ever? The honest possibility of the idea is disturbing.
The cheers are strange.
As Horton is taken away from the game -- away from the Garden -- fans of both teams sound encouraged. It's a time-honored tradition in sportsmanship: applauding the guy who goes down and gets back up. Cheering the athlete who is wheeled, motionless, off the ice seems odd. There isn't that relief you feel when someone limps off the ice or field of his own power.
The hope is that wherever Horton goes, he will get better.
Boston's anger resurfaces when the jumbotron replays The Hit. Rome receives a five-minute major and a game misconduct; the same penalty Jamie McGinn got for boarding Rome less than three weeks ago. The fans moan and boo. They've been wronged.
The police officer on the ninth floor, again, says he fears a Bruins loss.
What if Horton is paralyzed?
Michael Ryder replaces Horton on the man advantage. The whistle blows and the players keep playing.
The faceless press level PA system eventually bears news.
"UPDATE ON NATHAN HORTON: HE HAS BEEN TRANSPORTED TO MASS GENERAL HOSPITAL AND IS MOVING ALL EXTREMITIES. THERE IS NO FURTHER UPDATE AT THIS TIME."
When you hear the news you want to tell everyone. You Tweet it, text it, whatever, but you really want to scream it down to the crowd and to the teams. Do they know? You hope they know.
The Bruins relay the message on the jumbotron during a break in play.
Some seventeen-thousand or so hockey fans rise and cheer for relief that is less abstract than a stretcher ride.
Then they move on.
Boston is winning. The Bruins score four goals in the second period, and with each one, the crowd gets rowdier, more excited. They are less angry at Rome and Vancouver.
They're soothed by the scoring. By the time Daniel Paille nets goal No. 5, the fans are drunk with joy.
"We want to win for him. We want him back as soon as possible," Paille says later.
"Somehow you have to find a way to put it behind you and stay focused and play the game. The best way to get revenge is win the game and that's what we did," Zdeno Chara says.
It's good enough for now. It has to be.