For Mike Nichols, it was just another hockey game.
Another chance to play the sport he cherishes and continue his journey, another opportunity to perhaps impress scouts.
The Monroe High School (New Jersey) senior had already scored a goal and two assists on that January 4, 2014, unaware of the life-changing event that was about to transpire.
“We were on the penalty kill, and one of the defensemen chipped the puck into the offensive zone,” Nichols recalls. “I got behind the defense and slowed up so I could stay in control of the puck. A kid hit me from behind. It was a dirty hit but he didn’t have intent to injure – it wasn’t a vicious hit. I hit the boards and my body went numb.”
Nichols had gone into the boards head-first, sustaining an incomplete injury at the C5/C6 vertebrae. He had very limited mobility in his arms and none in his lower limbs.
“I knew instantly what happened,” he says. “I couldn’t feel anything. I was laying on the ice for what felt like forever to me, but I think it was about 15-20 minutes.”
Instead of pregame skates and shooting drills, Nichols, now 21, undergoes rigorous physical therapy to regain as much muscle mass and function as he possibly can. Still, he regrets nothing and, without the slightest bit of hesitation, says that if he knew how it’d all turn out, he’d still play hockey.
“I’m just a hockey player,” he says. “I was lucky enough to have the unlucky situation of being hurt in an ice hockey game. If I got up and was walking tomorrow, the first thing I would do is go play hockey. And, if I got a spinal cord injury the next day, well, I got to play some more hockey. It was the only thing that made me feel separated from the rest of the world. When I got on the ice, it was just me, the puck and the ice—I didn’t think about anything else.”
Like Nichols, 25-year-old Denna Laing became paralyzed from an on-ice incident while playing for the National Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Pride. In the first period of the Women's Outdoor Classic at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, she accidentally stepped on a broken stick and fell head-first into the boards during the first period. She, too, has limited movement in her arms and none in her legs.
"I knew that there was something seriously wrong,” says Laing. “I couldn't move much and I couldn't feel anything. I've been injured in the past, but it was very different."
Laing also feels quite content with her decision to play hockey, even in hindsight. “The amount of years and time and the memories that I made playing hockey overshadow anything that came after the injury,” she said. “Hockey's still a huge part of my life. I have two sisters that play hockey. I have a huge hockey mom and my dad's a hockey coach. Hockey's not going anywhere, and I definitely wouldn't have changed anything. Especially the game I was playing in when I got hurt. It was so cool to be playing at Gillette Stadium. It was a great moment for women's hockey."
She credits the game for helping her through her battle with paralysis.
“I could easily have fallen walking down the street as quickly as I went into those boards,” says Laing.
“I've never been mad at hockey for getting injured. It gave me so much; it's still giving me so much. Many organizations have been there from the very start. Even in the ICU, the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the NHL and NWHL were all there organizing and trying to get things that I would need to move forward with the process. The hockey community has sent cards, letters and prayers. It's all been unrelenting and amazing, and it definitely gets me to push a little harder every day. I can't say enough about how thankful I am.”
It’s also taught her some valuable life lessons.
“I have learned that sometimes things are not as bad as they seem,” says Laing. “You should never give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Continue to fight for what you hope for and believe in.”
That same community has embraced Nichols in his fight, and he’s deeply grateful for that.
“I don’t know where I would be today without the support of the hockey community,” says Nichols. “I get hurt and Derek Stepan is tweeting at me, Ryan Johansen is tweeting at me. James van Riemsdyk is direct messaging me. The Devils sent alumni to my therapy. The Rangers sent me a Henrik Lundqvist signed jersey. Mike Eruzione sent me a picture. Gordie Howe sent me a picture. I’ve met Adam Graves and Mark Messier, and I had breakfast with Jeremy Roenick. These people showed me that they might seem larger than life, but they’re just another brother in the hockey community. I sell out my fundraiser every year because the hockey community is always behind me.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also expressed the league’s commitment to unwavering support for those in situations like the ones Mike and Denna are going through.
“The NHL community and the NHL family is always supportive of family members who have difficult situations, whether it’s been Hockey Fights Cancer, which has been in effect for more than 20 years, or when people sustain severe injuries,” says Bettman. “The NHL family has always, either collectively or on an individual basis, been there to support other members of the family.”
He added that the league is “always focused on player safety; it’s always one of our priorities.”
Will Reeve, the son of Christopher and Dana Reeve and a board member of the Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to helping those living with paralysis from spinal cord injury and to finding cures for the condition, said that his father’s connection to hockey was always special.
“My dad grew up playing hockey and was an excellent goalie,” said Reeve. “Though he stopped playing well before his injury, he maintained a connection the game and the hockey community throughout his life. Watching hockey, whether on TV or in person, was a means of escape and comfort for him. The hockey community never failed to rally around him or our family, and always reminded us that we were loved, supported, and never forgotten.”
Nichols has viewed his life from a very different lens ever since he became paralyzed.
“About seven and a half weeks after my initial injury, I flat lined,” says Nichols. “I’m not supposed to be here right now. That’s put my life in perspective."
But his experiences since regaining his heartbeat have shaped his approach even more significantly, he says. “The wheelchair has closed the door on my hockey career, but the door that’s opened leads to so many more paths than playing hockey ever would’ve given me.”
Reeve adds that support from the hockey community has come not just at the league level and the fans, but from teams as well.
“The Rangers have a long history with and connection to the paralysis community; the team’s highest award, the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, is named after the late NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, who, like my dad, was a fixture at The Garden and a source of inspiration for fans and players alike,” he says. “I also know that the Boston Bruins have been extraordinarily helpful to Denna Laing and her family, and recently honored her at a game at TD Garden.”
What is it about hockey that breeds this type of continual support?
“I believe that NHL players especially are aware of the risks associated with their sport—they are always one play away from being paralyzed—and feel a responsibility to be role models in terms of appreciating what they have and connecting with those who have had much of what we take for granted taken from them,” says Reeve.
Nichols suggests there's even more to it.
“Hockey players have an unwritten rule of respect for each other than no other sport will ever come close to having,” says Nichols. “If two players are fighting, once it’s over, they say ‘great fight man, you good?’ ‘Yeah, great fight buddy.’ No other sport will ever come close to that.”