The mood inside Monroe High School’s locker room before the Falcons took the ice for the first time since teammate Mikey Nichols suffered a broken neck in a game last weekend was understandably somber.
The senior center’s jersey, perched inside an empty stall next to that of a teammate, served a dual role, letting players know Nichols was still with them in spirit, and reminding them for whom Wednesday’s game against Woodbridge was being contested.
“I’ve looked in your eyes every day,” Monroe head coach Jerry Minter told his charges in an emotional pre-game speech. “I can see your pain and see your strength. The way you have handled this situation has been fantastic. You’re ready for this game.”
Before the Falcons skated onto the ice at Woodbridge Community Center to face the host Barrons in front of an overflow crowd — the largest to watch a game in the program’s brief nine-year history — Minter reiterated Monroe’s role.
“We’re playing this game for Mikey,” he said. “We are on center stage. We have to serve him right and put on a good show for everybody.”
The scoreboard reflected a 4-2 loss that only told part of the story, failing to accurately depict the precocious maturity with which a group of teenagers have conducted themselves in the wake of a catastrophic injury to a beloved teammate.
“I could see it in their eyes, what it meant to them to get on the ice today,” Minter said. “It was something special for them. I know how much they care about Mikey as a friend, as a teammate and all the support they are giving him and his family.”
The Monroe school community has already raised more than $30,000 for the Nichols family, which remains at Morristown Medical Center, where Mikey is in critical condition following Sunday’s surgical attempt to repair a fractured C5 vertebra.
A visit from inspirational former Rutgers University football star Eric LeGrand, who was scheduled to meet with the Nichols family on Wednesday, was postponed until next week.
LeGrand tweeted, “Please keep the support and prayers coming (Nichols’) way and always bELieve,” a sentiment that hundreds across the country using the #PrayForMikey hashtag continue to echo.
Nichols has already told his father Steven, according to an nbcnewyork.com report, that even though he couldn’t “feel anything” after a head-first collision with the boards, and even though doctors said it’s too early to tell if he will walk again, he will return to the ice.
The hundreds of purple-and-gold clad fans who attended Wednesday’s game similarly believe Nichols is merely on the temporary disabled list.
They showed their support for the injured assistant captain, waving posters and wearing shirts that bore his name and jersey number.
Spectators tucked bills of various denominations inside a gigantic water cooler bottle labeled “Nickles for Nichols” as part of yet another grass roots fundraising effort for the family, not all that different from dozens of others that are taking place across the entire state this week as all of New Jersey feels Monroe’s pain.
“We knew from the fans’ perspective and our perspective it was going to be emotional for everybody involved,” Minter said. “I thought everybody overall handled themselves exceptionally in providing support for Mikey’s family.”
With the Falcons trailing 4-2 midway through the third period, the Monroe faithful chanted “Do it for Mikey,” a call to which the visiting team could not answer despite its burning desire to provide Nichols a victory.
“We won this game before we even hit the ice,” Minter said. “There’s no shame in a loss. Today was no different from any other game. I stress to the kids year after year that I’m not obsessed with wins. I’m obsessed with effort, teamwork and camaraderie. So, to see them come out and join together, that means more than any victory.
“They wore their heart on their sleeves and did a fantastic job in terms of doing what they wanted to accomplish tonight in paying their respects to Mikey and his family.”
A more paramount victory — the only one that seemingly matters now — could loom on the horizon with Nichols following in the footsteps of Sean Denehy, a Monroe football player who made a near-complete recovery after fracturing his C5 vertebra and traumatically dislocating his C6 vertebra while making a tackle in a 2001 football game.
As is hockey tradition, once the final buzzer sounded, the public address announcer read the names of the three stars of the game. The list fittingly included the moniker of just one player — No. 23 Mikey Nichols.
“He’s a great kid,” said Minter of Nichols. “He’s a tough competitor, a fighter on the ice and has one of the biggest hearts off the ice. He’d do anything for anybody.”
Both teams, in a show of solidarity, gathered at the red line following the game’s conclusion, forming a circle at center ice as a player used his stick blade to raise Nichols’ jersey above the sea of bodies.
The Falcons not only raised Nichols’ jersey, which had been perched behind Monroe’s bench for the duration of the game, they also elevated his spirits with their effort on and off the ice.
The same ice to which everyone hopes and prays Mikey will soon return.