The following is an excerpt of “A Few Good Men: The Inside Story of a College Hockey Season,” a book by Dave Hendrickson currently under consideration for publication.
Final exams were over.
Like any other student, Travis Roy felt relief and satisfaction. He’d done well in both of his courses, one in English and one in psychology. Next semester, he’d bump his load up to three courses and know he’d be up to the challenge.
Now, if he were any other student, he’d celebrate and go blow off some steam. Head down to one of the bars that catered to the student crowd and just hang out. Shoot the breeze with friends. Tell lies about the horrors of his first exam week at BU.
Chill out, unwind, meet new people. Laugh at new jokes and old. Let the muscles, tense from final exam pressures, slowly relax. Buy a friend a drink. Let another friend buy him his. The place would be noisy, a loud hum of conversation blanketing the crowd.
If his girlfriend was there, he’d put his arm around her. Hold her close. Look into her eyes. Hug her and, if the time was right, give her a kiss.
And if something wasn’t quite right at one place, well, there were plenty more to try. Hop from one to the next.
Shoot pool or play video games. Dance. Mingle. Get a pizza at T. Anthony’s. Hop in a car and head downtown, catch a movie, wolf down a medium-rare steak. Go to Chinatown at two in the morning and eat Peking dumplings with chopsticks. Have a snowball fight. Sample the latest CDs at Tower Records.
The social possibilities at a school like BU were endless. And for a hockey player at a school where hockey was king, the sky was the limit.
Exams were over. Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Party hearty, Marty.
But, of course, Travis Roy was not like any other student.
Every academic building was wheelchair accessible, but how many popular nightspots were? Hanging out, that simplest of student pleasures, became very different when you were a quadriplegic.
On most days, Travis just shut the door to his room, and, with no roommate, shut out the world. He clicked on the TV. Later, he might play on the Internet.
“There were a few people who would come down or call and ask how I was doing or said they’d like to do something with me,” he said, “but I always had an excuse. I didn’t feel comfortable with myself, and there were very few people who were comfortable with me.
“People don’t know all the things that make up a quadriplegic or all the different things that I have to worry about. I don’t like putting myself in awkward situations, and I don’t like putting other people into them either.”
The classroom, that great collegiate melting pot, failed Travis socially even while it met his academic needs. The school, his instructors and his aides could ensure that he had access to notes and other course materials, but they couldn’t alter the discomfort so many felt in his presence.
“You have a group of people that is intimidated by the wheelchair and the handicap itself,” he said, “and then you have another group that is intimidated by just Travis Roy, the kid who had been in the news for the past year. Basically, people fell into one of the two groups.”
The timing of his injury compounded the social struggles peculiar to any quadriplegic. He’d been little more than six weeks into his first semester at BU. He’d barely known the other players and had yet to forge friendships external to the team.
“When I went to Boston University,” he said, “I didn’t know anybody. Thus, nobody knew me. I wasn’t there long enough to establish myself and have people know me the way I wanted them to know me.”
Travis also was struggling to figure out who he was. For so many years, he’d seen himself as A Hockey Player. Now, he was no longer A Hockey Player. A void filled what had once been the core of his self-image.
Fourteen months earlier, the nightmare had still been a dream. And he had still been A Hockey Player.
“I remember standing there on the blue line,” Travis said, “saying to myself, ‘This is it. You’ve made it.’ I was so excited. It was a time to enjoy what I’d worked so hard for all my life.
“It was a time of intense pride, of myself and for my family. What I had wanted was to be on that ice, to be part of a Division I hockey team. To be on a Division I hockey team that was the defending national champions just made it that much sweeter.”
Then came the fateful first shift. The hop over the dasher, the rush of adrenaline, the head-on crash into the boards and the damaged spinal cord.
“I don’t really remember that much of the shift,” he said. “It consisted of about eleven seconds, so it was quick. The shift never sunk in, either fortunately or unfortunately; I don’t know which would have been better. Before I knew it, it was all over. And I knew it was all over. I knew I wasn’t going to be back…. I still remember the hush of the crowd. You could hear a pin drop in that place.”
His father, a former star at the University of Vermont, came onto the ice. He reached back to his days as Travis’s coach and uttered an almost mantra-like encouragement. “Hey, boy, let’s get going. There’s a hockey game to play.”
“Dad, I’m in deep [trouble],” Travis said.
He couldn’t feel his arms, legs, or anything below the pain he felt in his neck. He didn’t need a doctor to spell it out for him. He knew.
He had worked so hard, for so many years, to reach this dream that had now turned nightmare. Skating since he was just 20 months old, the son of a rink manager, always looking for a little more ice time… stickboy for a minor league team, soaking up knowledge about the game… leaving his home in Maine to attend prep school where he could play against stronger competition… moving to Boston this past summer so he could work out with Mike Boyle, BU’s strength and conditioning coach, and be primed for this season… all that effort to realize a dream… and now this.
“But Dad, I made it,” he said.
As they wheeled him off the ice on a stretcher, he saw his girlfriend, Maija Langeland.
“Don’t worry,” Travis told her. “I’ll be all right.”
At the hospital, everyone was remarkably calm.
“It was a weird thing because I wasn’t in pain,” he said. “I just had a little pain in my neck, and that was it. Other than that, I couldn’t feel a thing. I looked completely normal. I was in my uniform. I was talking normal. It was hard to realize how much was gone with that type of injury.
“I remember Maija being there and just wanting to kiss her. She was right by my side. She was as strong as anybody and helped me as much as anybody. She was my rock to hold onto.”
In the ensuing weeks, Travis endured surgery, pneumonia, stomach ulcers, high fevers, a partially collapsed lung and a tracheotomy. Unable to speak, first because of tubes down his throat and then because of the tracheotomy, he communicated solely through blinking his eyes, nodding, and an occasional smile.
What became even more difficult, though, was his inability to communicate in the nonverbal ways he’d used all his life, “not being able to hold onto, or hug, or touch, or feel the people who were around me.”
Through the ensuing months, those closest to Travis helped him survive emotionally.
“I have an incredible family and an incredible group of friends,” he said. “Maija was incredible. That was all I had to get through it. Luckily, that’s exactly what I needed.”
The team hung his jersey behind the bench for every practice and game. The initials “TR” were added to the Terrier jersey inside a circle above the numerals on the left sleeve.
“It made me feel good that I wasn’t forgotten because nobody there really knew me,” Travis said. “I was a freshman, and I’d been there a month and a half and that was it. That was the hard part for everybody with the hockey team. Nobody really knew me and knew exactly what kind of person I was. But still they didn’t forget me and tried to keep me a part of the team as much as they could.
“It was bittersweet. It felt great not to be forgotten, but to watch the games and see your dream unfolding without you… basically, it went from dream to nightmare in eleven seconds.
“I watched all their games. I didn’t live my dream long enough to know exactly what it was all about, so I didn’t know what I was missing out on, missing out on traveling and being out on the road and pre-game meals and the atmosphere after a big win or a loss. I only sort of know what my dream was all about.”
Five months after the injury, Travis attended his first game when BU went to the NCAA East Regional in Albany, New York. The experience transcended the many games he’d watched on TV.
“It was exciting to see hockey again,” he said. “College hockey is just a great game. But it was definitely different. I went down to the locker room before the game and hung out with the guys.
“I remember seeing everyone relate to one another. The freshmen were no longer freshmen. Everybody got along, and everyone had their rituals and buddies on the team.
“It was hard to see all that and not be part of it. It was hard for them because they all wanted to do something for me and say something, but they were at a loss most of the time, much like myself.
“I felt I had a new puzzle, and I didn’t know how it went together. I was trying to figure everything out, my relationship with the players and the coach. It was just a tough time.”
In September, Travis returned to BU. He had important decisions to make. So much had been left unresolved after his visit to Albany.
“I went down to the rink with Coach Parker,” he said. “It was the first time I’d been down there since my accident. And that was when I figured things out. I hadn’t known if I was going to go into the rink that day and walk out, close the door, and never go back again or if I wanted to be a part of it.
“I found that I definitely wanted to be a part of it. I love the game too much. It’s just an amazing, amazing sport. I couldn’t walk away from that.”
And so, when the team began practices, he arranged for his van to drive him to Walter Brown Arena every day. His wheelchair might prevent him from taking the ice, but he would once again become an active teammate in his own way. Unfortunately, the blur of a student-athlete’s life claimed his plan as a victim.
“I wanted to be there so I could feel more a part of the team,” he said. “But I’d forgotten how much time and dedication it takes to be a Division I athlete. It’s basically two full-time jobs. They didn’t really have that much time to hang out in the locker room. There are so many things going on.
“I’d get down there a half-hour before the practice. They’d get dressed and get out on the ice, and I’d talk a little bit. Then after practice, they would get undressed pretty quick and shower and get to the weight room or the study hall or get doing some homework.
“After a while, I realized that it wasn’t a waste of time, but it really wasn’t worth me going down there for practice every day.
“And to be honest, we don’t have a very deep relationship. I never got to know the guys that well. I’d go down, and we’d talk for a few minutes, but we don’t have a whole lot to talk about. I’m not doing the same things they’re doing.
“It took a little while for me to figure that out and to realize that I’m not going to be with these guys all the time, hanging out and spending all the time that they spend with each other. There are two separate dreams and two separate goals. I don’t think either of us can really appreciate the other’s.”
Eventually, through trial and error, Travis found a more limited role that fit both his needs and the team’s. Although attending practices and pre-game meals amounted to considerable effort with little to show for it, his locker room presence at games benefited everyone and established his place on the team.
For all the home games, and some of those on the road, Travis would be in the locker room, before and after the game and during the intermissions. He’d position himself so he could both see everybody on their way out and also keep his wheelchair out of the way. He’d then move to his game-time position near the arena entrance where he analyzed the action.
“One of my objectives was to try to learn the game from a coaching viewpoint,” he said.
Unlike fans who are convinced they could direct strategy better than their coach, Travis found it more difficult than he had expected.
“I struggled with that quite a bit. Jack Parker is an amazing coach. He sees the game so clearly. For me to go up and watch the game and try to figure out forechecks and backchecks and neutral zones was extremely difficult.
“I’d go down to the locker room, and Jack had it all in his mind. He knew exactly what changes needed to be made. It was interesting that way, going down there between periods.
“By hanging out as a player and coming down sort of as a coach between periods, I mixed a whole bunch of things up and made that into my role. I had my place in the locker room and was supportive of the guys. I felt I belonged there, which felt good. I felt the guys liked having me there.”
With hockey players a traditionally superstitious lot, some developed locker room rituals involving Travis.
“There were several guys who would come over to me as they went out of the locker room,” he said. “I can move my right arm a little bit, and I’d tap my hand to their glove. There are a couple guys that I’d say my few words to every time, and that’s what felt good.
“It was all I needed, just to feel that little bit of a part of it and of the guys. It means a lot, it really does, for them to accept me and not only that but accept me the way I wanted to be accepted as a regular kid.”
Having finally established his role on the team, Travis tried to put together the rest of the frustrating puzzle of his post-injury life. His family and long-time friends, his girlfriend Maija, and his newfound place on the team combined to piece together the puzzle’s outside border.
What remained, though, were the inside pieces of himself, all looking alike but none of them seeming to fit.
“Hockey was a big part of the pride that I had in myself,” he said. “It gave me my confidence in myself. Without it, I don’t have much confidence.
“I’m not a hockey player, and after being a hockey player for 18 years and associating my life as a player, it’s quite a difference. I struggle with myself. I haven’t figured out my personality as a quadriplegic.”
When Travis sustained his injury, he and Maija had been going out for a year. In the next year and a half, she would be his “rock” through maddening frustrations and disappointments.
“It obviously has its ups and downs,” she would say, “but as time goes by there are more ups than downs. It’s definitely do-able.”
She stood by Travis’s side with the patience and loyalty of a saint.
Not surprisingly, Travis exuded praise.
“Oh, gosh,” he said, “she’s been the biggest help to me out of anybody since the accident. She supports me in everything I do. We’ve been able to find a nice balance with our relationship and we’re working that all out. Everything is brand new to me again and it’s one day at a time, but we have a wonderful relationship.”
As summer beckoned, however, Travis and Maija realized that after two and a half years they needed a break. The two had discussed that eventual possibility even before he headed to BU. If they took a break and it was meant to work out, they told each other, it would work out. Travis’s injury, though, both complicated and heightened that need.
“It’s taken so much away from her, and her freedom, and her family and her friends,” he said. “She needed a break to experience life on her own a little bit. Not only that, but also not to have to worry about all the concerns that I have to worry about everyday.
“She just needed to be on her own. We both saw it. I don’t know what would have happened without the injury, but the strain of everything definitely contributed to it.
“It’s not as much the injury as my personality since the injury. I’ve really struggled to find myself again. I know who I am and the person that I was before the injury is still inside me and that’s the way I think, but I can’t physically act in that manner.
“It’s amazing how much reflects on not having that. Not being able to do things or show people how much I love them or just to be able to surprise people or do things for them. I can’t do that unless I have someone with me.
“The wheelchair has absolutely nothing to do with it. I feel very confident that Maija has no problem with me being a quadriplegic or being in a wheelchair, but my personality is not the same and that’s the really frustrating part. I’m trying to figure out how I can be more and more myself in the condition that I am.”
“In a groundbreaking experiment, California scientists have used gene therapy to induce nerves to regrow in rats with damaged spinal cords, partly restoring their ability to walk…. The results are another in a series of recent hopeful steps toward the goal of reversing paralysis from spinal cord injuries.”
– The Boston Globe, page 1, July 15, 1997
While presently trying to find himself as a quadriplegic, Travis also looks to a future where spinal cord research offers him the chance to discard his wheelchair.
“I have strong hope, almost to the point where I believe positively, that there will be a cure,” he said. “I try and be careful not to set myself up for a big fall, but to be realistic I think there’s a very good chance of it happening. The technology these days is moving very rapidly and they are finding big things. It’s just a matter of time.”
In the meantime, he struggles with himself. The high school athlete with clearly defined goals looks at his life now and can’t find any.
“Not right now, to be honest,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’m dealing with. That’s what’s most frustrating. I don’t have goals and I don’t know where to begin.
“It’s extremely difficult just trying to figure out what’s going to make me happy again. I haven’t been able to figure it out.
“I hate to put my life on hold for seven or ten years or however long it will be before they cure it, but right now that’s what I’m doing until I figure something out.”
Despite the injury’s catastrophic effect on his life, though, Travis maintains an abiding love for the sport.
“Any kids I talk to,” he said, “I ask them, ‘Do you worry about hurting yourself and ending up like me? If you do, don’t worry about it. Go out and have fun.’
“I don’t even think about hockey being a dangerous sport. That’s the most ridiculous thing. It’s an amazing, wonderful, wonderful sport. Hopefully, I can give my kids the opportunity to play hockey.”
Travis Roy’s life story, Eleven Seconds, co-authored by Travis and E.M. Swift, will be released in hardcover by Warner Books in January, and will be available online through USCHO’s bookstore (coming soon).