There are so few, true, fleeting opportunities in life when a teachable moment materializes, hidden in plain view, and those wise enough recognize it and are able to use it.
For me, a passionate, lifelong fan, player and student of the game of hockey, one of those moments occurred in the days and weeks proceeding the tragedy that struck on October 20, 1995. That night, Travis Roy, considered at that point to possibly be the greatest player to ever come out of Vermont and maybe New England, tied his skates to play in his first college hockey game for Boston University. He would achieve his dream, but would ultimately see it derailed and become a nightmare. Eleven seconds into his very first shift Roy would miss a check on an opposing player, fall headfirst into the boards, and suffer a catastrophic spine injury. He would be left a quadriplegic, gaining some use of his right arm years later.
The injury, how it occurred, to whom it occurred, and the reality of what could happen in what amounts to a child’s game, shocked and horrified not just hockey but the entire sports world. Here in Boston, home to a number of college powerhouse conference Hockey East’s teams, the effects were tenfold. Every rink, every stick, every puck, every mention of the game was tainted for a little while with the taste of tragedy, or dejection, of almost mourning for a kid who was damned to a life so unlike the one he had earned. Not even old enough to check with, I remember it crystal clearly.
Everyone felt this way. Except for Travis Roy I guess. Roy almost immediately clung to those eleven seconds. Because for those eleven seconds he achieved his ultimate dream of playing major college hockey. For those not quite in the know, in the Northeast, while dreams of playing in the NHL are abundant, college hockey is actually pretty huge given the presence of the Hockey East, which includes BU, BC, UMass etc. For Roy, he had been able to reach that huge peak, if only for just over a sixth of a minute. From just after his injury to his death, yesterday, at the age of 45, he was quick to mention how fortunate he was, how hopeful he was, and how he refused to see himself as anything but a guy who had lived his dream, regardless of the outcome.
To reach the heights of playing for the Boston University hockey team, you have to work extremely hard. So one can assume Travis Roy was no different in that regard. His efforts after his injury were no different if not even greater. Not only did he log arduous hours of PT to regain the aforementioned use of one of his arm, but he started the Travis Roy Foundation and was tireless in his endeavors to raise money for research for and assistant with spinal cord injuries. Millions of dollars have been dispersed since the foundation was founded to not only try and find either cures or to improve treatment for spinal cord injuries, but for the things we don’t think about like modifying family vans to accommodate those who suffer these enigmatic, mysterious, barbarous maladies.
That, I honestly think, will be Travis Roy’s legacy. His enduring legacy. He was a hockey player. He was a hockey player that got terribly hurt. But he was a hockey player that got terribly hurt and used that hurt to make sure people that suffered the same fate were not alone and had people standing by them. He was grateful, he was optimistic, and he always kept going. He never stopped.
Rest in peace Travis Roy. Because of you my Dad got to teach me at age six that you should always be grateful for what you are able to experience, no matter how briefly. And no matter how you get knocked down, there is always a way, some way, to get back up.