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Travis Roy’s Dreams Ended 11 Seconds Into His College Hockey Debut

December 23, 1995 GMT

EDITOR’S NOTE: Travis Roy was skating when he was 20 months old, playing hockey at 3, and at 14 listed his goal as being a pro. But 11 seconds into his first college hockey shift, Roy was paralyzed when he crashed into the boards. Two months later, he faces a Christmas knowing that he probably will never walk again.

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By HOWARD ULMAN

AP Sports Writer

BOSTON (AP) _ Travis Roy and his parents drove down a dirt road between rows of Christmas trees last year. They stopped, and he strolled among the pines, searching for just the right one.

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The year before, he had joked about his mother’s selection at the tree farm near their home in tiny Yarmouth, Maine. So this time, his parents made him choose.

``We put him right on the spot,″ his father, Lee Roy, said with a nostalgic smile, recalling the moment. ``He was just laughing.″

The young man started sawing, but his parents kept up their playful criticism.

``Even if he picked the best tree, which it was, we wouldn’t have told him,″ Lee Roy said. ``We all hauled it out.″

Last Christmas Day, the wreaths were on the doors of their 144-year-old home with the big lawn in the center of town. The candles were in the windows. The stockings were hung.

Travis Roy’s tree was decorated with small bulbs, wooden ornaments and popcorn on a string.

``Christmas, to the Roy family, is probably one of the most special occasions,″ the father said.

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Travis Roy will spend this Christmas in a bed at the New England Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center of the Boston University Medical Center. He has virtually no feeling or movement from the neck down.

He will have two Christmas trees in his room _ both artificial because of hospital fire safety rules. One, about 18 inches tall, sits atop a TV set and is decorated with homemade hockey-related ornaments. The other, about the same size, is on a table nearby, trimmed more traditionally.

``I thought, `Well, what gift are we going to get for Travis?′ ″ Lee Roy said. ``I haven’t come up with a thing that is really going to bring joy or happiness to him.″

Roy’s parents and his sister Tobi were happy as they sat in the stands before the hockey game on Oct. 20. Roy was pumped up. Only a freshman, he had won a spot in the opening-night lineup for Boston University, the national champion.

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Tim Pratt, his coach the past two seasons at Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass., talked to the parents five minutes before the game.

``They were saying how this is the most excited they’ve ever seen him,″ Pratt said. ``Ten minutes later, it ended.″

Roy, only 165 pounds, sped toward the corner to check a North Dakota opponent. But the player moved to avoid contact, and Roy brushed against him and crashed head-first into the boards.

The fourth cervical vertebra about midway down his neck burst. Eleven seconds into his first college shift, he was paralyzed from the neck down. But he had reached his goal of playing Division I hockey.

``No doubt about it,″ Lee Roy said, putting his left hand to the center of his chest as his eyes grew misty. ``He made it.″

When he was 14, Roy asked his parents to sit with him in the family room. He unfolded a piece of paper. On it, the precocious teen had written his goals.

``The ultimate athletic goal was to have the opportunity to play professional hockey,″ Lee Roy said.

All that is gone for a dedicated youngster who first skated when he was 20 months old, was playing hockey games with older kids when he was 3, and sat up for the first time since his injury about a week ago.

``You can’t sit here and say, `How is it going to be?′ We’re going to learn how it’s going to be,″ his mother Brenda, an assistant principal, said. ``It certainly does wipe out a whole pocket of hopes and dreams, but you just change your focus.″

Now that focus is on helping Roy. The Roys are a very warm, tight-knit family, and one of his parents has slept in his hospital room nearly every night since his injury. They’ve been there to scratch his cheek at 3 a.m.

``If you want the absolute picture of pure, unadulterated courage, take a look at the Travis Roy family,″ Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker said.

In recent weeks, Roy has suffered severe abdominal pain. His father said Roy has moved his right hand, but it’s unlikely he ever will move his fingers individually or walk again. But Lee Roy is hopeful medical advances will allow the 20-year-old to do what he can’t do now.

Dr. Susan Biener Bergman, Roy’s lead physician, said one area of research is using electrical stimulation to bypass the damaged spinal cord and activate muscles. She said it’s too early to predict how much Roy will improve, although there has been movement in some arm muscles.

``There are people who have recovery every day. Then there are some who don’t change at all,″ she said. ``He seems to be in that middle category where there have been some changes, but it’s very slow and it’s hard to say how far they’re going to go.″

She said another patient whose fourth cervical vertebra was damaged, like Roy, is in his third year at law school. And she’s optimistic that Roy will attend his sister’s wedding April 27 in a wheelchair.

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Pick an adjective _ friendly, thoughtful, considerate, loving, hard-working, dedicated, humble. All have been used to describe Roy.

``This will tell you what kind of kid he is,″ Pratt said. ``My wife and I are expecting our first child in May. I didn’t even know he knew. He could just mouth words and the first thing he said when I visited is `congratulations.′ It just blew me away.″

The outpouring of support has been even more astounding. Thousands of cards and letters have arrived from places like Saudi Arabia and Japan. A radio station raised $452,000 in cash and $150,000 in services in one day to help with medical bills. A hockey fan called three times from Australia.

``He was a straight arrow. He had the respect of literally everybody,″ Jack O’Brien, who coached Roy as a freshman at Yarmouth High School, said. ``I believe that’s why this is happening.″

O’Brien, a family friend, said there’s no doubt Roy would have reached the NHL.

``He had that kind of skill level and the dedication and the discipline,″ he said. ``He was not the biggest and not the fastest, but he clearly was the smartest player on the ice.″

``He would have been an outstanding college player,″ Parker said. ``He had a commitment and competitiveness that set him above everyone else and he would have proven that at this level and maybe at the next level.″

Roy has spent almost his entire life around hockey.

His father was MVP at the University of Vermont and now manages the North Yarmouth Academy rink. He was assistant operations manager at another rink where the Maine Mariners of the AHL played. His son rode with him on the Zamboni. From age 7, Travis Roy hung around players and coaches who went on to the NHL. He even took some road trips. Mariners coach Tom McVie made him a stickboy.

``Because of his personality and his innocent little way, every player on the team loved him,″ McVie said. ``He was irresistible.″

``He’s one of the kids you could never get mad at because he never did anything to get you mad,″ Scott King, Roy’s teammate and roommate, said. ``Me and Travis played Nintendo together. I miss my Nintendo partner.″

Boston University captain Jay Pandolfo hangs Roy’s orange practice jersey on the glass between the benches at practices and his No. 24 game jersey behind the team’s bench at all its games.

``He knows he’s still part of the team,″ Pandolfo said.

King, the son of former Calgary Flames coach Dave King, remembers when Roy’s parents took their son’s belongings from the room he had shared with three freshmen.

``They took his bed out and now there’s a lot more room, but I don’t want a lot of room. I’d much rather have Travis,″ King said.

Lee Roy brushes away tears when he recalls that day he went to the room and saw a sign the roommates had put on the door with Lee’s quote from a news conference: ``Travis will return.″

His parents and friends are confident he’ll work as hard to overcome his latest obstacle as he did at sports. He was the captain of Tabor’s hockey team, a co-captain in soccer and a member of the golf squad.

``He had a net right there in the driveway,″ O’Brien said. ``You could go by it any time of day and see him shooting pucks in the net.″

Bill Susbury cut the youth’s hair in his shop across the road from the Roys’ house.

``There was always a soccer ball going or a hockey puck and you’d see him packing up his stuff in the mornings and heading out to practice,″ Susbury said. ``No one knows how he’ll make out, but certainly, if anyone has a chance of coming through this, he will do it.″

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Lee Roy sits cradled in the corner of a white couch in an apartment that Boston University has made available near the hospital. The roof of the church outside the window is covered with snow. On the floor is a copy of the Hockey News next to a small book, ``Wisdom From the Bible.″

``Good friendship, good eggnog,″ Lee Roy said in his New England accent as his mind drifted to those Christmases back home when the Roys cut down their own trees. Then his voice started to break. ``There are regrets that it’s not going to happen this year, but there’ll be others,″ he said.

He’s surrounded by cartons filled with messages from well-wishers. One from an employee of the East Coast Hockey League in North Carolina, whose teams are raising money for Roy, has captured the reason for all the interest.

``She summed it up by saying, `He’s the boy next door, he’s the son, he’s the friend, he’s the brother, he’s the family member, and everybody can relate to that,′ ″ Lee Roy said.

There’s another reason for all the sympathy: ``How many people have you ever seen in your life literally break their neck?″ he said.

The game was televised and there were more writers and photographers than usual because the NCAA championship banner was to be raised. Roy already had played in an exhibition game, but the big game was the regular-season opener.

The play was shown repeatedly on television. A photo of the blond young man who had worked so hard to reach his goal has appeared in magazines and newspapers.

Cans with Roy’s photo, filled with shoppers’ spare change, sit on convenience store counters. The NHL is raising money. The Dallas Stars set up a fund to buy him a van. The Boston police played the Secret Service in a benefit hockey game. An annual golf tournament is in the works. New fund-raisers keep cropping up.

Vice President Al Gore visited. President Clinton wrote a letter.

NHL teams have sent autographed jerseys. Wayne Gretzky stopped by and quietly made a sizable donation. Strangers have hugged Lee Roy at airports. The Roys are thankful for the support and sympathy.

One note came from a girl Lee figures to be about 5 years old. Inside were five creased $1 bills.

``I feel certain, looking at her bills, that they came out of a piggy bank,″ he said. ``That epitomized what everybody was feeling and doing and saying. The dollar amount really wasn’t the important thing. It’s the thought, the care, the warmth, the love.″

Dennis Byrd, the former New York Jet partially paralyzed during a game, wrote: ``In the quiet times of the night remember _ somewhere I will be saying a prayer for you or thinking about you. Somehow, some way, God will make your trial a Blessing. Finding this Blessing is up to you.″

Then there are the kids, writing with pencils and crayons.

``I really wish you could just take a drink of magic potion and get all better,″ one wrote.

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Dr. Bergman said Roy’s spirits are generally good. His mother said his mind is sharp and his sense of humor intact.

``It’s still uplifting for me that we know the kid he was is still in there,″ she said.

``His heart is exactly the same heart that has always been there. It’s a caring heart,″ Lee Roy said. ``The only thing that’s different is his legs probably aren’t going to work.″

Parker visits frequently. Once they talked about the team’s injuries.

``He just looked at me and said, `I’ll be back in two weeks.′ ″ Parker said, chuckling at the memory.

But then there was the time Roy told his father, `` `I just want to be normal. I just want to be me.′ He can’t be. It’s a done deal,″ Lee Roy said.

When Lee Roy found out at the hospital that his son was paralyzed, he went off by himself and cried. The son he had taken to so many chilly, pre-dawn practices would never play hockey again.

``After about 15 minutes I said, `This isn’t helping me or helping anybody, so it’s time to get on with things,′ ″ he said.

The Roys still fight thoughts of ``what if?″ But Lee Roy also can dispassionately analyze the tragic play. With photos of it on a coffee table a foot away, he demonstrated his son’s position going into the check. He even has studied the pictures with him.

``It’s never bothered me″ to look at them, Lee Roy said. ``This was just another play. The end result stinks, but there’s nothing we can do to change that, so why dwell on that?″

O’Brien said Roy won’t do that either.

``He won’t wallow in any self-pity,″ his first high school coach said. ``I haven’t heard him say once, `Why me?′ ″

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Lee Roy looks at more pleasant photos. A smile creased his soft face as he proudly showed off pictures in the family album _ a 3-day-old Travis leaving the hospital in his mother’s arms, Travis with a litter of puppies he helped deliver, Travis with the trout he and his father caught in Arizona, Travis sailing.

``Somehow, some way, we’re going to get him out on that sailboat,″ Lee Roy said.

Roy no longer uses a ventilator to assist his breathing. And he can talk again. On Dec. 11, the tracheotomy in his throat was plugged and he called up his father, who had returned from Boston to Maine for a day of work at his rink.

``He says, `It’s me.′ I said, `Travis?′ he said, `Yes,′ and I about died,″ Lee Roy said, a big grin now brightening his face. ``My reaction to hearing his voice after seven weeks is like a person returned. He was there.″

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And he will be there, Lee Roy said, when Tobi gets married at the Yarmouth Town Meeting Hall in four months. Before the injury, she had decided to postpone the wedding until after the hockey season so he could attend.

``I’ve pictured this,″ Brenda Roy said. ``My son will take me down the aisle. My son was going to be the shining star. He’ll just have finished his first year in hockey. He’s a good-looking kid.

``Now, if Travis wants it and it’s appropriate, he’ll take me down the aisle in a wheelchair.″

Tobi told Roy she’s afraid he’d be uncomfortable and wouldn’t want to attend, but he reassured his sister he’d be there. And doctors are optimistic that he’ll be out of the hospital by then.

It will be one happy day the Roys can look forward to as they cope with their son’s tragedy. It would be an occasion to cherish together, just as they shared so many joyous Christmases.

``I want him there because ...″ Brenda Roy said, unable to continue as her voice broke.

Her husband finished: `` ... he belongs there.″