Michael Nichols, a senior forward on the Monroe High School ice hockey team who suffered a serious neck injury in a game against Vernon on Saturday night, underwent surgery at Morristown Medical Center on Sunday to repair a fractured C5 vertebra.
According to Monroe head coach Jerry Minter, the surgery went well. He said Nichols is breathing on his own and is “in good spirits considering the situation.”
“There are positive signs,” Minter said. “It’s minute by minute.”
Nichols was injured following a head-on collision with the boards during the second period of a game contested at Skylands Ice World Arena in Sussex County. He was transported by helicopter to the hospital, where doctors identified a fracture to his C5 vertebra, according to Minter.
“We were killing a penalty and he was skating in the offensive zone for a loose puck,” Minter said. “He took a shot on the loose puck and was off balance. In the process of shooting the puck he was checked at the same time and that propelled him forward head first into the boards. It happened so fast.
“He’s not the type of kid to sit on the ice. Anybody that knows him knows he’s a tough kid. My initial reaction was he was knocked out. It wasn’t until I got to him that I realized it was more severe than what I had anticipated.”
Ice hockey coaches and players from across the state took to social media Sunday, offering well wishes for Nichols and his family. Dozens of messages — including one from USA Hockey — were posted on Twitter with the #PrayForMikey hashtag. Minter said he has received countless calls, text messages and emails from across New Jersey and beyond.
“It’s been everywhere,” Minter said. “We definitely want the support of others and for people to be aware of the injury, not only for (Nichols) but to bring light that the most innocent of plays can be completely devastating. People need to realize that.”
Vernon Athletics Director Bill Edelman said in a phone interview Sunday night that he reached out to Beyer and Minter for an update on Nichols’ condition and to express support. He called the collision “an unfortunate incident” and declined further comment.
Monroe Athletics Director Greg Beyer declined comment out of deference to the Nichols family. He said Monroe players would not be made available for comment.
St. Joseph ice hockey coach Ryan Carter, whose reigning Greater Middlesex Conference championship team defeated Monroe on Dec. 18, described Nichols as a “warrior.”
“He’s a fearless competitor,” Carter said, “a kid that went hard constantly from the minute he got on the ice. He didn’t care who he was going against. He never backed down. He was an in-your-face player, not the biggest of kids, but a true competitor.”
“We all feel this. As much as the Nichols family and the Monroe team are going through this, this is going to resonate with all our players. If they need anything from us, we’ll be more than happy to help in any way. Anytime you lace up the skates, this can happen to any one of our players. You see too many of these types of injuries happen throughout the years.”
Jerry Smith, the athletics director at St. Joseph who serves as the Greater Middlesex Conference’s ice hockey chairman, said the Nichols family will be in the thoughts of every league member and that his high school will include Michael on its prayer list Monday morning.
Nichols is the second student-athlete from Monroe since the turn of the century to suffer a serious neck injury.
Sean Denehy, then a junior, fractured a vertebra in his neck while making a tackle on a kickoff in the school’s 2001 season opener. He underwent surgery and made a near complete recovery.
“We know and appreciate that everyone is looking for the most up-to-date information on (Nichols’) status,” the Monroe ice hockey team’s web site www.monroefalconshockey.com states. “We will use this page to provide any and all relevant information regarding Michael.
“During this difficult time, please direct all your attention to praying for and supporting Michael and the Nichols family. Please refrain from placing any blame, jumping to conclusions and provide the family with some privacy.”