Shortly after absorbing a body check that sent him crashing head-first into the dasher boards, former Monroe High School hockey star Mikey Nichols, who was left paralyzed from the violent collision, vowed to make a triumphant return to the ice.
“That ice I couldn’t get up from the other night, I’m going back to it,” said Nichols, who fractured his C5 vertebra in a Jan. 4 game. “I’m going to stand up on that ice.”
Nichols doesn’t take his promise to “stand” on the frozen playing surface lightly, which is why he expresses some reservation about joining his new Danbury (Conn.) Whalers teammates for a ceremonial dropping of the puck before a Federal Hockey League game on Saturday night.
“One request Mike had, in his mind, emotionally, is the next time he is on the ice, he wants it to be on his skates,” Danbury CEO and managing partner Herm Sorcher said.
“He asked us to respect his wishes to remain true to his thoughts.”
A minor league team with Central Jersey ties that drafted him in June, Danbury will ensure Nichols’ wheelchair never touches the ice in his professional debut, guaranteeing him the opportunity to step on it with his own skates, as is Nichols’ desire, at a later date.
The Whalers will literally roll out the red carpet for Nichols so that he can maneuver his motorized chair across it to line up at one of the wing positions for the opening faceoff of a regular-season game against the Berkshire Battalion on Mikey Nichols Night.
A portion of proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Nichols’ trust fund, which has been established to meet his medical and quality-of-life needs. Fans can also purchase an official No. 23 Danbury Whalers T-shirt bearing his name.
“It’s going to be real emotional for me,” said Nichols, who will take the ice wearing a green Danbury Whalers jersey. “I miss the game so much and I still love the game so much. Talking about me going on the ice, that’s going to be something really tough. I really haven’t fully bought into that idea. I’m really nervous about going onto the ice. I miss (the game) and want it back so badly. It’s going to be incredibly tough to do.”
Nichols will use the night in his honor to heighten awareness about spinal cord injuries and to continue spreading the news about the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s “The Big Idea.”
Launched in October, “The Big Idea” focuses on groundbreaking research in the area of epidural electrical stimulation, which has improved the quality of life for four men living with chronic motor complete spinal cord injuries. All four men, each paralyzed for at least two years and unable to move their lower extremities, can now lift their legs, flex their ankles and support their own weight while standing with the help of an epidural stimulator, an electrical devise implanted into the spine. The stimulator, which sends a generalized electrical signal to the spinal cord, also enabled the four men to regain bladder and bowel control, sexual function and to regulate their blood pressure and body temperature.
Nichols, who hopes to one day be eligible for implantation of the device, will have an opportunity to address the Danbury crowd during Saturday night’s game.
“What I’m going to say is going to be deep and meaningful,” Nichols said. “I want to help everyone now. I think the fans and players will know the meaning (of a person with spinal cord injury) a lot more. We need this (“The Big Idea”) now. We can’t wait any longer.”
Nichols and his family are scheduled to arrive at the arena around 5 p.m., at which time they will meet the Danbury players and coaches.
“Mike will come in and just talk hockey and get a great feel for who the guys are in the locker room and the organization that he is a part of,” Sorcher said, adding Nichols will have some time to eat a pregame meal and watch the NHL Network with his new teammates before they take to the ice for a pregame skate.
The Whalers are scheduled to present Nichols with his official No. 23 Danbury jersey about 20 minutes before the opening faceoff. Nichols will then join his new teammates on the ice for player introductions.
“It’s a combination of giving Mike a great night and getting him to experience what it is to be a pro hockey player and also having the venue and the vehicle to get his message out to the people,” Sorcher said.
“This is what a person with paralysis is facing and this is how we can work together to (find a cure).”
The Whalers have designed a “Mikey Strong” logo with Nichols’ No. 23 jersey number in the team’s official blue and green colors that adorns the front of commemorative T-shirt.
“It’s all about Mikey,” Alan Friedman, Danbury’s president and CFO, said of drafting Nichols and hosting a night in his honor. “We’re just part of the hockey community helping his dream come true of becoming a professional player.”
A four-year varsity letterwinner who tallied 19 assists and nine goals in 69 games, Nichols is not the first player with a serious injury to be drafted or signed to a professional contract.
Former Colonia and Rutgers University star Eric LeGrand signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, and former Indiana University basketball star Landon Turner was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1982.
Nichols returned to his Monroe home in June following five months of care at Morristown Medical Center and The Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange. Nichols is able to breathe on his own after needing a ventilator for months, and continues to regain strength in his arms and upper body.
According to a press release on the Whalers’ official web site, Nichols’ father, Steve, said his son is “currently classified as a quadriplegic” with no feeling below his lower rib cage.
The Whalers have steadily tracked Nichols’ progress since he was injured.
“We are connected to a lot of people down in (Central) Jersey,” Sorcher said. “We can’t wait for Mike to come to Danbury and be a part of what we are doing. We are so honored for this opportunity.”
Friedman’s son, Michael, graduated in 2008 from Marlboro, where he was a member of the high school’s ice hockey team. Sorcher is a 1987 graduate of Freehold Boro, where he lettered in three varsity sports.
Tickets to Mikey Nichols Night and commemorative T-shirts can be purchased by calling the Danbury ticket office at 973-713-7547 or by visiting the team’s website.
“I think it’s very important in his recovery,” St. Joseph ice hockey coach Ryan Carter, who coached against Monroe, said in June about the Whalers drafting Nichols and planning a night in his honor.
“Athletes always have to set goals for themselves, whether getting better at a certain skill or winning a team championship. In Mikey’s situation, he strives to get better every day.
“Hopefully, he can step back on the ice and skate with them.”
Staff Writer Greg Tufaro: firstname.lastname@example.org