THERE WAS FEAR, of course, along with the invevitable questions: Why did this happen? What’s going to become of me? But the emotion Taylor Chace most remembers from the immediate aftermath of the injury that rendered him partially paralyzed is anger.
“I was angry at first. Of course I was,” Chace said last week, three years and three months after he slid violently into the boards of a hockey rink in Cannington, Ontario, shattering the L-1 vertebra in his spinal cord.
“But anger helped me to turn my life into a positive. I didn’t want this to stop me from living my life.”
Life these days for Chace, a Hampton Falls resident and recent graduate of Hampton’s Winnacunnet High School, includes getting out of bed and walking on his own — mundane activities that most 19-year-olds take for granted, but that he had to relearn through hour upon hour of Physical Therapy.
His life on the whole, however, is far from mundane. Long after he abandoned plans to play for the University of New Hampshire and in the NHL, life also includes hockey — specifically sledge hockey, the sport in which he will represent the United States at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
“It’s a great feeling to have a chance to represent my country with pride,” Chace said. “To go out and compete with the ‘USA’ on your chest — there’s just nothing better than that. I’m sure I’m going to be emotional when I get (to Turin).”
When he took the ice with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs on the night of Oct. 6, 2002, Chace was one of the youngest, yet most promising, players on a team that included current Division I collegians Andrew Thomas of Bow (Denver), Brian Pouliot of Hooksett (UNH), John Laliberte (Boston University) and Joe Pearce (Boston College).
In his first game with the Junior Monarchs, the 6-foot, 180-pound 16-year-old had registered a goal and two assists in a victory over the Eastern Junior Hockey League rival Bridgewarter (Mass.) Bandits.
“Taylor’s potential was limitless,” Sean Tremblay, said last week from his office at Tri-Town Arena in Hooksett, where he remains the Junior Monarchs’ coach and general manager. “He was an NHL skater who had an NHL body and just needed time to mature. Without a doubt in my mind, he was going to be special.”
And the next beneficiary of Chace’s blazing speed and blistering wrist shot was to be UNH.
“There’s no question he would have made an impact for the state school,” said Tremblay. “He was a Division I player, for sure.”
Ten minutes into a game against the Uxbridge (Mass.) Junior Bruins, also of the EJHL, Chace broke in on goal, fired a shot and absorbed a check that sent him skidding into the boards — back first.
“He went in hard, about as hard as I’ve ever seen, but he didn’t go in head first,” Tremblay told the New Hampshire Union Leader shortly after the incident. “We were thinking maybe he bruised his back or bruised his tailbone. You definitely weren’t thinking spinal cord injury.”
But that’s exactly what Chace had suffered. A CAT scan performed at Ross Memorial Hospital in Lindsay, Ont., revealed the fractured vertebra and led doctors to have Chace airlifted to Toronto Western Hospital, known as the best spinal center in Canada.
One week after suffering the injury, he underwent six hours of surgery, doctors using bone grafts and hardware to fuse the damaged vertebra with adjacent bones in the spinal column.
Chace emerged nearly motionless from the waist down. No one knew if he would ever walk again.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Taylor’s father, Seacoast ophthamologist Rick Chace, said after the surgery. “It’s certainly going to be a lengthy road. We hope those milestones can be met, but there’s no guarantee.”
The road began at Northeast Rehabilitation Center in Salem, where Taylor arrived less than a week after the surgery. By Nov. 9 he was home. He continued rehabilitation with four 3-hour sessions each week, two sessions at Columbia Portsmouth Rehabilitation Services, two with a personal trainer. By the end of the year, he was walking with a cane. By spring, he was walking with no assistance at all.
“I can walk to a certain degree of normality,” Taylor said of his current gait. “I mean, there are still parts of my toes, feet and ankles I can’t feel. My hip is weak. But I can get around.”
Returning to the ice
The first time Taylor tried sled hockey, his mother, Lisa, said, he was terrible.
“I wanted to cry,” she recalled.
Taylor’s older sister, Meredith, was a UNH student at the time he suffered his injury. It was Meredith who introduced him to Northeast Passage, the nation’s only university-run recreational program for people with disabilities, and it was Northeast Passage program coordinator Tom Carr who introduced him to sledge hockey.
Sledge hockey, according to the International Paralympic Committee, “follows the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation, with a few modifications. Instead of skates, players use two-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass beneath. They also have sticks with a spike-end for pushing and a blade-end for shooting.”
Not yet strong enough to play the game when he first tried it, Taylor gave it another go in the spring of 2004. By autumn, he was playing at full speed.
He was a hockey player again.
Going national— and beyond
Playing sledge hockey for the Northeast Passage team led to a roster spot with the New England Bruins, an elite group that draws from disabled teams throughout New England. Two of Chace’s Bruins teammates had played on the U.S. squad that won the Paralympics gold medal at Salt Lake City in 2002, and they encouraged him to try out for the national team. He made the squad last year.
In March, he travels to Turin, where his parents will watch him compete for Team USA.
“He’s a winner,” Dr. Chace said of his son. “All the credit goes to him. He was able to find the inner strength, having faith in himself and God. This was all him — his drive, the fire in the belly, the heart to work hard and do something he’s loved since he was a young kid.”
Lisa Chace, who knows something about athletic determination and achievement, having completed 11 marathons, finds herself in awe of what her son has accomplished.
“He has done more with his life than I or most other adults would ever accomplish,” she said. “You just never think something like this can happen. Taylor and all of us would love to turn the clock back, but he has dealt with this in a very positive way.”
Tremblay, who was behind the Junior Monarchs bench that terrible October night more than three years ago, will be in Turin, too, as will two of Taylor’s New England Bruins coaches, Rick Middleton (the former Boston Bruins star) and Tom Moulton.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world — seeing Taylor in the Opening Ceremonies,” said Tremblay. “For a guy who doesn’t cry much, I will be hard pressed not to shed a tear that day.”
A promising future
Accepted to UNH for last semester, Chace deferred enrollment to play for Team USA. He plans to begin studies in the university’s exercise science program next fall.
Hockey remains a part of his future, as well as his present.
He never let it become part of his past.
“I love hockey, love playing it, and I didn’t want to see it leave my life because of this injury,” he said. “Whenever I enter a hockey rink, for some reason, I feel comfortable and at home. I knew I wanted to get back into it, and I set a goal for myself to come back and play.”
The anger, on the other hand, is something for which he no longer has time.
“One thing I know what makes Taylor happy is that he is part of a team again,” said Lisa. “He missed it right after his injury, but now he has it back.
“And he’s very happy.”
By JOHN HABIB – Staff Sports Writer