In December 2019, Duane Buytaert left his son Sam’s junior varsity hockey game at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet just before the third period began.

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton was playing arch rival Duluth East, but his daughter, Aili, had a robotics meeting at Garfield School and his wife, Katy — a music teacher at Washington Elementary School — was running a student concert.

Duane had just arrived at Garfield when ominous texts started appearing on his phone.

“Duane, where are you?” one asked.

Duane realized if he was receiving those types of messages, Sam was likely hurt. On his way back to NCUA, he received a call from another parent.

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“I think they were closer to the ice and they said, ‘Yeah, he’s still down on the ice, Duane, I think they’re calling an ambulance,'” he said.

While waiting for the light at Doddridge Avenue and Highway 33, Duane saw the ambulance race past and followed it to the back of the arena.

CEC junior Aaron Ermatinger was on the ice with Sam and saw his teammate take a scary hit from behind.

“It was kind of nerve wracking,” Ermatinger said. “There was a good 10 minutes where he was laying on the ice and not getting up.”

Cloquet players help paramedics lift their teammate Sam Buytaert (29) onto a stretcher after he suffered a severe concussion, Dec. 12, 2019, at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet, as his father Duane Buytaert (far right) looks on. (Tyler Schank / File / News Tribune)
Cloquet players help paramedics lift their teammate Sam Buytaert (29) onto a stretcher after he suffered a severe concussion, Dec. 12, 2019, at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet, as his father Duane Buytaert (far right) looks on. (Tyler Schank / File / News Tribune)

Katy was still cleaning up after the concert, but her phone was silenced, and she hadn’t seen the texts piling up on her phone. Washington principal Robbi Mondati came up to her with a concerned look on her face.

“She had a look on her face that was just strange to me,” Katy said. “She grabbed me by the arm, and she had her phone and said, ‘This is a phone call for you, you need to listen very carefully.’”

After hearing the news, Katy said she was so distraught she handed the phone back to Mondati and asked her to listen.

Sam said he doesn’t remember anything about the night he got hurt until he felt people begin to remove his gear at the hospital. By that point, feeling had returned to his toes and doctors diagnosed him with a severe concussion.

“After that, I just remember coming home and just going to sleep,” Sam said. “I pretty much just slept for a week straight.”

Sam was out of school for much of the next three months recovering from the injury. He went through physical and occupational therapy to help his balance and fine motor skills.

When he did go to school, he typically ended up in the nurse’s office with headaches or nausea.

“I think one of the hardest things with this type of injury is that when you have knee surgery or a broken leg, you can see it,” Katy said. “With Sam it was so hard ... because there wasn’t a cast or crutches.”

Sam said he was starting to feel like normal in early March when the COVID-19 pandemic first gripped the nation.

“I was just getting caught up on all my school work, and I was feeling good,” Sam said. “Then we got sent home, which was kind of like a blessing in disguise because I could take breaks whenever I needed if I had a headache.”

Sam, now a junior at Cloquet High School, started preparing to play hockey this season over the summer. His parents were concerned about him playing, especially since he suffered a previous concussion. A third would end his career permanently, and he’s tried to stay cognizant of that fact — even taking himself out of a summer league game after a tough hit just to be sure he wasn’t hurt again.

Sam said he enjoys playing hockey and wants to continue playing as long as he can.

“A lot of kids my age who play sports don’t realize how quickly it can all be done,” he said. “I think I’ve learned to be resilient and keep fighting to get better and play the sport that I like to play.”

Sam Buytaert is back on the ice for the Lumberjacks after suffering a serious concussion during a hockey game last winter. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Sam Buytaert is back on the ice for the Lumberjacks after suffering a serious concussion during a hockey game last winter. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)