No Limits

Like any athlete worth his competitive salt, Harvard sophomore goalie Mike Ginal was excited when his coach told him to go into his first varsity game. With three talented netminders on the team, Ginal had found playing time somewhat sparse since arriving in Cambridge. So when he was summoned that night, his adrenaline took over.

As Ginal leaped off the bench and skated towards the Crimson net, though, there was a problem. He had forgotten his stick and mask.

“J.R. [Prestifilippo] grabbed me by the sweater and told me to slow down,” laughs Ginal. “I was really pumped up.”

And well he should have been. He was about to make history.

By manning the Crimson net for the final 3:10 of that Feb. 20 game against Colgate, Ginal (pronounced jin-NELL) became the first college hockey player to appear in a Division I game wearing a prosthesis — an artificial limb. And despite his harried entrance that night, he was a model of control once he got between the pipes.

Ginal has been in control for most of his 20 years. For the first four, though, his life was an intimidating swirl of operating rooms, doctors and rehab. Born with a rare condition that spawned bone tumors in his left leg, resulting in its amputation from below the knee down, Ginal had undergone a dozen surgeries by the time he was 3 1/2 years old.

When none of the procedures alleviated the pain, his parents began to think of amputation as the only solution. “It just got to a point where watching him suffer became unbearable,” says his mom, Heidi. “We kept hoping that he’d get better after each surgery, but nothing worked. We had to do something for him.”

Growing up in Depew, New York, a small town around 10 miles from Buffalo, it was natural for Ginal to root for the Sabres. “My favorites were Danny Gare and Bob Sauve,” says Ginal. “And right now, there’s nobody better than Dominik Hasek.” Depew’s close proximity to Buffalo also made it logical that the Ginals would seek medical advice there.

After examining Mike, the doctors in Buffalo recommended that his leg be amputated from the hip down. The tumors weren’t going away, they explained, and they wanted to avoid further spreading. Though Heidi and Ronald Ginal wanted to save Mike’s knee because it would allow for a more active lifestyle, they accepted the doctors’ prognosis and scheduled their three-year-old son for surgery. Then fate intervened. The day before his surgery, Mike’s grandmother came across a magazine story about a Philadelphia doctor who was conducting experimental orthopedic surgeries. The family called the doctor, explained Mike’s situation and headed to Philadelphia the next day with a glimmer of hope of saving his knee. Once there, however, the doctor couldn’t help. He did, however, refer the family to a friend who was coming in from England for a prolonged stay.

That friend, Dr. Hugh Watts — who would amputate the lower portion of Mike’s leg in the first surgery of its kind in the U.S. — would become an inspirational figure in Mike’s life.

The surgery went well, but when they took the cast off his leg, Mike was unprepared for what he saw — or didn’t see. “The doctors tried to explain to me what was going on before the surgery,” remembers Mike, “but I didn’t absorb it. When they took the cast off, I looked down and didn’t see a foot. I just started screaming.”

Heidi Ginal felt helpless. “We tried to explain what was going to happen, but he couldn’t comprehend the words,” she says. “When he started screaming, I began to wonder whether we had done the right thing.”

Eventually, Mike was fit for a prosthesis. He doesn’t recall much about the rehabilitation process, other than being spread out on a floor at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital with Dr. Watts, playing with all kinds of toys. “Once I got past the initial shock, I never looked back,” says Mike.

Less than a year after his surgery, Mike was learning how to skate and play hockey. The family had spent lots of time in ice rinks. Mike’s sister, Theresa, now 23, was a competitive figure skater and by sheer osmosis, Mike became infatuated with hockey.

The skates, the sticks, the ice. He couldn’t get enough. He loved it so much, in fact, that when a family friend offered to give Mike skating lessons each morning at 5 a.m., the boy didn’t hesitate.

Like a skier just getting started, Mike spent a fair amount of time sprawled on the ice during those crack-of-dawn sessions. But in time, he got the hang of it. “I couldn’t watch at first,” laughs Heidi, “because I thought he’d get hurt. I stayed away from the rink for about six months. When I went back, he had improved so much.”

When he was eight, Mike played for the Little Falls Roaring Lions. Back then, all the kids wanted to be goal-scorers and not goal-stoppers. “I remember the pale blue jerseys,” he says, “And that everyone alternated at playing goal. Nobody wanted to do it full-time.” At some point, though, Mike volunteered and registered a shutout. He was on his way.

While Mike progressed through Depew’s hockey hierarchy, his parents were content to simply watch him grow up. He did everything a normal little boy would do, even though his mom cringed a little when he took his first bike ride around the neighborhood. Technically, he was different than his friends. But aside from his shying away from wearing shorts or favoring higher socks, you would have had to look hard to notice.

“I never once thought of my leg as a restriction,” he says. “Sure, I was self-conscious. Every kid’s self-conscious about something. But I never used my leg as an excuse. Not once.”

On the contrary, he considered his leg a blessing. A second life. He had to learn how to do things differently and, more often than not, found himself working twice as hard — in the classroom and on the ice.

“I can remember thinking that a coach could easily pick a goalie with two legs to make the team instead of me,” he says. “It made me strive to be twice as good as the next guy.” That diligence would serve him well all the way to the distinguished hallways of Harvard.

After a starry career at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Buffalo — where he became the first freshman ever to make the varsity squad — Ginal was recruited heavily by a number of Division III schools. “I talked to a few Division I coaches,” he says, “but I didn’t detect much interest. I made the decision that I’d rather go to a great academic institution and have an outside shot at playing hockey than go to a Division III program just to play hockey.”

His application packet to Harvard landed in appropriate hands. In 1989, Chuckie Hughes was in net when the Crimson beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers, 4-3 in overtime in one of the most scintillating national championship games ever. Today, Hughes works double duty on the Harvard campus, reviewing applications by day and working with the Crimson goalies by night.

“I remember looking over his application,” says Hughes, “and as I kept reading, I could tell he was a really special individual. When I first met him, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. At first, he’s very polite and soft-spoken, but he can also be pretty gregarious. He’s got this great balance between humility and a rigid work ethic.”

Once he committed to Harvard, it was time to see what could be done about playing hockey. Through a mutual friend, Crimson coach Ronn Tomassoni heard about Mike and suggested that he try out for the junior varsity team. After playing a year for the JV team, Ginal was called up to the varsity in December 1996.

But he had some stiff competition in front of him. Fellow sophomore J.R. Prestifilippo was entrenched as the starting goalie, while German-born freshman Oliver Jonas occupied the number-two slot. After performing at such a high level in high school, Ginal found it frustrating to sit on the bench.

Then came that magical night last February. “You should have seen both the admiration and adulation on that bench when he went into the game,” says Hughes. “It was a testament to how hard he’s worked, but also showed how much of an inspiration he is to his teammates.”

Ginal, who hopes to follow in Dr. Watts’ footsteps by becoming a pediatric surgeon, is an inspiration off the ice as well. He enjoys talking to kids in similar situations, but in typical fashion, downplays his influence. So we’ll let his mom do the talking.

“There was a boy from Texas,” says Heidi, “who never thought he would be able to play hockey. He was despondent. But the family heard about Michael’s story, gained optimism, and finally got their son on skates. The mother wrote to us to express her gratitude.”

Though his stay in Boston so far hasn’t resulted in a change of allegiance from the Sabres to the Bruins, Ginal is trying to make a difference. He’s currently working on a project at Boston’s Children’s Hospital that would give him a chance to speak to kids that have been diagnosed with chronic diseases or ailments. He hopes to help them cope with their problems.

“One thing my parents drummed into me at an early age was that you can achieve anything you want,” he says. “Don’t let anyone stop you from achieving it.”

As he smiles, contemplating what he has just said, you can tell he’s thinking about what he has to do to start a game. But then he’ll want a shutout. And then …

Rick Kampersal is a freelance writer based in Boston.