Allie Skelley never thought such a mundane task that most people take for granted would make him so happy. But he’s grateful for every day he rolls out of bed and his feet touch the floor without assistance.
That wasn’t a given four years ago when the Wolfeboro native suffered a serious neck injury that could have killed him or at the very least cost him the ability to walk.
A junior defenseman and captain for the St. Lawrence University hockey team, Skelley was checked from behind in a game against Lake Superior State in Canton, N.Y., and tumbled head-first into the boards.
“I’ve seen the video a couple of times,” Skelley said. “It was a pretty decent hit. I had my head down and went into the end boards. It was one of those things where I was stunned and then blacked out for a few seconds. When I woke up I couldn’t feel things right off.”
Initially unaware of the severity of the injury, he was allowed to leave the ice under his own power. But Skelley’s hockey career had ended less than a week after he helped the Saints upset the University of New Hampshire, 4-2, at the Whittemore Center in Durham.
That was the last full game he played after fracturing and dislocating the C-5, C-6 and C-7 vertebra in his neck. Even now, more than four years later, not a day passes that he doesn’t think about the scary mishap and the aftermath when doctors told him he’d never play again.
“Usually when there’s a dislocation like that it severs the spinal cord and either kills you or disables you from walking,” said Skelley, now 27. “I was pretty lucky. I guess the muscles in my upper back and neck were strong enough to hold the vertebra in place so that (my spinal cord) didn’t break.”
Even though the absence of hockey left a huge void in his life, he returned to the classroom to complete his undergraduate work in economics, then went back to St. Lawrence the following year to get his master’s degree in education.
For the past three years Skelley has held the position of associate director of admissions at the Holderness School, where he also coaches varsity hockey and baseball.
“That’s been great,” Skelley said, “getting back into hockey that way. It’s weird. Growing up I had no desire to be a coach. But ever since the injury I’ve kind of changed my perspective on things. I thought it was the most therapeutic thing I could do. Sports has always been such a big part of my life. I didn’t realize it until the injury and I realized I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t involved somehow.”
The one thing he’s been reluctant to do, both by choice and by chance, is attend a St. Lawrence hockey game. He feels he didn’t leave the sport under his terms and was still seeking closure to a career that ended prematurely.
That all changed this season when he decided to attend several SLU games, including the Saints’ 2-0 loss at UNH in December, four years to the month after he got hurt. And just try to keep him away from this afternoon’s NCAA playoff game in Manchester between St. Lawrence and Boston College.
He’s already scored luxury box seats in case the Saints make it to Sunday’s regional final. Skelley played with some of the seniors on the current team, including captain and Hobey Baker candidate Drew Bagnall.
“It’s a tough thing,” said Skelley. “In retrospect it was good. I didn’t have to make that (career) decision; it was made for me. It forced me to move on and find a real career I guess you could say. The way it ended was tough. It was tough to deal with and still is. It’s kind of like therapy going back.”
Skelley is still quite active. He says he feels great physically other than the occasional upper back and neck pain. But that’s nothing he can’t live with. Nor does he dare complain about any discomfort, given the alternative.
Although he’s not supposed to play contact sports, he runs six miles a day and lifts weights. Skelley even played in a no-check hockey league in Laconia last year.
He also enjoys taking some of the Holderness students camping where they hike through the woods with 80-pound packs strapped to their backs. Skelley’s brother Tad attends Holderness where Allie also runs a boys dorm.
One of Allie’s hockey players is related to Travis Roy, whom Skelley has gotten to know over the past two years. Roy wasn’t as fortunate. He’s the former Boston University hockey player who was injured during his first college shift and wound up paralyzed.
“The time I’ve spent with Travis and talking to him and seeing the things he goes through every day, it’s kind of a weird feeling,” Skelley said. “Because I’ll stand there and think, ‘that should be me.'”
Al Pike is a staff sports writer for Foster’s Daily Democrat. He can be reached at 742-4455, ext. 5514, or at apikefosters.com.