Anthony Mastronardi lay on the ice, near the boards — his neck was broken, his brain was bleeding and his body went limp.
“I just felt my entire body go into total shutdown,” Anthony said.
He couldn’t move his legs, nor his arms, and he heard ringing in his ears.
“Why can’t I get up?” he remembers thinking. “What’s going on?”
Anthony, a junior defenseman at Macomb (Mich.) Dakota, crashed headfirst into the boards after getting tangled up with another player at the end of a high school hockey game Dec. 3. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Anthony tried to scream but nothing came out.
“It was barely coming out as a whisper,” he said. “I was like, ‘Can you guys hear me? Can you hear me?’ But it felt like my voice was going away. I thought I was losing my breathing.”
Anthony’s coach, Jim Andonoff, came onto the ice. Andonoff is a retired battalion chief of the Sterling Heights Fire Department with more than 20 years of experience as a paramedic. Andonoff quickly assessed the situation. Anthony was hyperventilating and needed to be stabilized.
“I tried keeping him calm,” Andonoff said. “I kept explaining to him what was going to happen, what everyone was going to do.”
A hockey coach who happens to be a former paramedic? At a critical moment like that? Was that pure luck or a slice of serendipity?
Sarahanne Mastronardi, Anthony’s mother, believes that God puts people in your life at just the right place, at the right moment. She has witnessed it over and over since her son’s injury.
Like the amazing therapists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
Or the woman in Oakland County who quietly runs a nonprofit that helps injured hockey players.
Or the NHL player who visited Anthony on Christmas Eve.
Or the throng of local hockey players who showed up to a rink one day to show their support.
Or the thousands of people who attended a Red Wings alumni game to raise money for Anthony.
They all came into Anthony’s life at just the right moment, at just the right time, revealing something profound about the heart of Hockeytown.
‘I broke my neck’
Anthony, 17, spent two weeks in the intensive care unit at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital.
“His C-5 burst and his C-6 was fractured,” Sarahanne said.
Anthony was a quadriplegic. He broke the news to his younger brother, Jack, in a light-hearted conversation.
“It was like 2 in the morning,” Jack said. “Anthony wanted me to come back and see him.”
Jack and Anthony were alone in the hospital room. They are brothers, friends and teammates. Jack is a goalie on the team and watched his brother get hurt from the bench.
“He was trying to crack a joke about it,” Jack said. “I don’t know why. He was laughing, Anthony was like, ‘Dude, I broke my neck.’ ”
Jack had tears in his eyes: “I was like, ‘There is no way.’ ”
Hockey community responds
In the hockey community, everybody seems to know everybody; and word spread quickly.
At Dakota’s next home game, about 200 hockey players and coaches from local high school teams came together to support Anthony at the Mt. Clemens Ice Arena.
“It was amazing; the hockey world is so small, everybody knew about the incident,” Andonoff said. “There were teams from all over, even travel teams. It was overwhelming. There were a couple hundred kids there, easy, who showed up and went on the ice.”
Candles were lit in the arena and the lights were dimmed for a moment of silence.
Jack stood at center ice. “Kids came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry for what happened,’ ” Jack said. “They said, ‘Tell him I’m praying for him.’ ”
Anthony was still in the hospital. “I was a little sad thinking about it,” Jack said, “but it made me feel a lot better, that a lot of people are caring for him. That this will push him to recover. I know he’ll get better.”
Determined to get better
After spending two weeks in the intensive care unit, Anthony was transferred to Detroit Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan — a magical place, where there are inspirational stories everywhere you turn. The halls are filled with people buzzing around in wheelchairs. Learning to cope with everything from spinal cord injuries to strokes. Getting stronger. Finding different ways to be active.
It’s a place that seems to say, “No matter the situation, let’s figure out a way to make this work,” — and Anthony started doing rehab with Jessica Sesta, a physical therapist, who popped into his life, like a piece fitting perfectly into a puzzle.
“On the first day, he could barely lift his arms up,” Sesta said. “He couldn’t touch his face. He couldn’t itch his nose.”
But he had a fierce determination to get better, spending extra time doing therapy, like an athlete staying after practice. “He’d bring himself down early and stay late,” Sesta said. “He would stay until we kicked him out.”
Sesta, who has worked in the spinal cord unit for three years, felt a connection with Anthony. Her boyfriend is a hockey player. And Anthony’s family grew so close to Sesta that they now consider her family.
During the week, Anthony’s mother stayed with him in his room. On the weekends, she went home and his father, Al, who works as an engineer at Ford, stayed with him.
“Their family is so close and supportive, positive, helpful,” Sesta said. “They’d go above and beyond for anyone. While he was here, I met aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, principals, librarians. I can’t tell you how many. Just a very supportive family.”
Now, there is something else you should know about Anthony.
Nothing ever came easy to him. He had to work for everything he has achieved — on the ice and in the classroom. “He made varsity his sophomore year by the skin of his teeth,” Sarahanne said. “The reason was, the junior varsity team folded.”
Anthony was told he probably wouldn’t see the ice the entire season.
“My husband and I were like, Anthony, that’s way too much money to be practicing with these guys and never play in the game,” Sarahanne said. “You are going to be sitting in the stands with a suit on. You aren’t even going to suit up.”
Anthony insisted: “No, Mom, I will play.”
He worked his butt off to earn playing time.
“And he actually started,” Sarahanne said. “By sheer grit and hard work. I’m not going to tell you it was talent. It was by always doing a little extra. It was by always working hard.”
Now, she thinks back, and she says that was part of a grand plan, one last slice of serendipity.
“Now, it’s funny, looking back,” she said. “I think all of that was in preparation for this.”
Road to recovery
Family and faith are at the center of his recovery.
Anthony is deeply religious — he had a Bible app on his phone before the injury.
“Someone put his name at the Vatican,” Sarahanne said. “They lit candles for him at a cathedral in Germany. People are praying for him across the country. It’s just blown us away.”
And it has given Anthony even more strength.
“Faith is the No. 1 thing that keeps me going,” Anthony said. “God has been right next to me through all of this. I’m a firm believer that it’s all planned. Whatever His plan is for me.”
Doctors and therapists don’t know how much more Anthony will recover. He is still considered to be in the early part of the recovery phase.
“With swelling, they can’t tell us how many nerves are damaged or what he’ll get back or what he won’t get back,” Sarahanne said. “What they know is, repetition, the more you move, the more likely things are going to come back.”
One day, out of the blue, his left arm shot into the air. An arm that was paralyzed. Like all the wiring was reconnected for just a moment.
But he couldn’t move it again for months.
Slowly, through therapy, his strength returned in that arm.
“It’s very slow,” Sarahanne said. “He has worked for every motion he’s had. It took quite a while before it was strong enough and now, he’s able to use his left arm.”
Anthony cannot close his hand, so Sesta had to come up with several creative ways for him to do rehab. She basically wrapped a bat to his hands so he could play whiffle ball.
“He’d smack that ball and it would go flying,” she said.
His legs are paralyzed but therapists can get his muscles to move by using electrical stimulation, so that he can ride a stationary bike, keeping his legs strong.
“He responds really well,” said Kyle Weishaupt, an outpatient therapist. “He’s a hockey player. His legs are like cannons.”