Had Erik Cole or Grant Marshall seen the homemade sign urging prayers for Mikey Nichols pressed up against the glass in the pregame skate Thursday night at the Prudential Center, they might have recognized it as an example of the kind of support that can make a difference.
Marshall, a spectator who once played for the New Jersey Devils, and Cole, who is one of the top players on the visiting Dallas Stars, both suffered broken necks tumbling into the boards while playing hockey. In that regard, they are uniquely suited to relate to Nichols, the Monroe High School senior who remains hospitalized in critical condition with a fractured C5 vertebra as the result of a similar on-ice crash.
“I’m more concerned with how he is doing,” Marshall said. “Obviously I didn’t go through it quite as bad as he did, but what I had to go through was pretty challenging and very serious. He always has people who are going to support him, me and everyone else in the (Devils) alumni included. We’re going to support him and if there is ever anything he needs we’ll be there to help him. He can do it.”
Nichols’ long-term prognosis is unknown as no two spinal cord injuries are the same.
Marshall, who was 16 years old when he was injured, and Cole, who was in his fourth NHL season as a member of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes, returned to the sport within months. But NBC New York reported earlier this week that Nichols, moments after a headfirst collision with the boards, told his father that he could not “feel anything.”
“As big as hockey is, it’s still a small world,” Marshall said. “We’re all a family. We all care.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Marshall was still waiting to receive the go-ahead from intermediaries to call Nichols. Cole, who was not familiar with the details of Nichols’ story, recalls that seeing his teammates for the first time post-injury “brightened my spirits.”
Nichols’ longtime friend and teammate Doug Siravo created the sign that asked the Devils to “win it for Mikey” and included the viral Twitter hashtag #prayformikey and a “get well soon” message.
“Teenagers are so much more active then we are and I’m sure it will be difficult for him to not be able to play with his teammates and not be able to be there and support them as much as they’re supporting him,” Cole said after his team lost 1-0 to the Devils. “He’ll be an inspiration to them and I think he’ll be able to show his character to them and what perseverance is all about.”
In Marshall’s case, doctors performed emergency surgery and said that his normal life would not be disrupted by his injury and that some sports activity would be OK but he would never play hockey again. Two years later, he was a first-round NHL draft pick.
“It really brought the character of who I am out and I realized what I wanted in my life and I fought for it and went for it,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have the great support from my family and my friends around me. It was a knowing what-type-of-person-I-am-type of turning point.”
Cole said he understands that it can be difficult to come to grips with the initial fear, which for him manifested in not being able to pick up his then-infant son.
“You realize what you have in life and what you are capable of doing that sometimes maybe you take for granted on a daily basis,” said Cole, speaking specifically of his own experience. “The first couple weeks of everything are probably the toughest points.”
Siravo said the growing support from the NHL community — including a Tweet with #prayformikey from Nichols’ favorite player, New York Rangers star Derek Stepan — will mean a lot to his friend.
“That they recognize he needs the support will definitely touch him,” Siravo said. “It’s like they’re playing for him. He is 100 percent the type of kid who is not going to let this stop him.”