Hockey has often been described as the fastest contact sport in the world. For Travis Roy it only took 11 seconds into his first shift at Boston University to end his hockey career before it began.
Leaping over the boards and sprinting toward the corner in his first collegiate shift, Roy set his sights on North Dakota’s Mitch Vig. At the last second, Vig avoided the hit and Roy went crashing into the boards, breaking his neck and leaving him a quadriplegic.
“It’s one of those things that you never expect to really happen,” said Roy who now spends his time as a motivational speaker. “But when it does you hope we all learn from it.”
While spinal cord injuries are extremely rare in ice hockey and continue to decrease every year—down from 5-10 injuries in 1997 to just 1-2 injured this past season—the importance of playing the game the right way is what Dr. Alan Ashare has been promoting for more than 25 years.
“People think that by ducking their head and crashing with their helmet, they’re protecting themselves, thinking the helmet takes all the energy,” said Ashare, the creator of the “Heads Up Hockey” program.
“It’s not hitting your head that’s causing the problem, it’s the compression on your neck and creating a break in your spinal vertebrae that essentially cuts through the spinal cord that is the problem.”
With the recent emphasis surrounding concussions, Ashare says that equal attention for spinal cord injuries is just as important.
“Awareness is the only way to prevent this type of injury,” Ashare said. “There is no practical equipment to prevent this. The only way to do this is through coaches. They have to teach players the technique and treat it as though it is as important of a skill as skating and shooting are.”
USA Hockey continues to take measures to make the game safer by emphasizing the importance of safety through its coaching clinics and vast library of educational materials.
“We are putting more emphasis on the Heads Up Hockey program because of what we know about the severity of the injury and ways to prevent it,” said Mark Tabrum, USA Hockey’s director of Coaching Education Program. “There’s that safety element that we all want to think about when putting our kids out there on the ice.
And it’s an element that Roy knows first hand cannot be overlooked.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I am not reminded of that injury,” Roy said. “But there’s also not a day that I look back and wish I hadn’t played hockey because of that.
“If we all take the precautions to be safe out on the ice, then there’s no reason we still can’t go out and play the game we all love.”