Backchecking: Grant Marshall

After a career-threatening injury, Marshall was told to ice his NHL dream. He didn’t
 listen and proved all but one doctor wrong

By Adam Kozak

Dec. 4, 1990, is a day Grant Marshall will never forget. He was 17 years old playing in his first season in the Ontario League with the Ottawa 67’s when he was viciously checked from behind by Jason Young in a game against the Sudbury Wolves. The hit left him with a broken neck and temporary paralysis. In the blink of an eye, his NHL dream was put on hold.

“At that point I was so scared,” Marshall says. “I couldn’t move. My life was turned upside down.”

Almost every doctor advised him against playing full-contact hockey, except Dr. Charles Tator, the renowned brain injury expert. Leading a normal life was in the cards, but pursuing his dream of playing in the NHL was in doubt. The news was devastating for Marshall, who grew up just outside hockey-crazy Toronto and remembers neighborhood games of road hockey and hoisting an aluminum garbage can as if it were the Stanley Cup. But he returned less than a year later and it was if he hadn’t even left.

“My first game back in junior I went after the biggest guy on the ice: Eric Lindros,” Marshall says. “That’s who I am, that’s my nature. If I was going to pursue this dream of mine, I had to play the game the way I needed to play, with my personality. If it wasn’t going to work out, at least I knew that I tried.”

Try is a bit of an understatement. Marshall went on to play 700 NHL games and win two Stanley Cups. But rather than boast, Marshall feels grateful the opportunity that almost never happened. Never forgetting that cold December night 23 years ago, he’s thankful to have had the chance to fulfill his boyhood dream, which makes exchanging a stick for a dancing partner that much more special.

After receiving a call from fellow ex-NHLer Ken Daneyko inquiring about participating in Battle of the Blades, it took Marshall all of eight minutes to agree to take part. The CBC reality TV show couples former NHL players with figure skaters to perform dance routines. Pairs compete to raise money for charity and Marshall knew right away which one to twirl for.

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Think First is a non-profit organization, founded by the surgeon who stitched up Marshall years ago, with the aim of preventing brain and spinal-cord injuries.  “It’s something near and dear to my heart,” Marshall says.

“For Dr. Charles Tator to be able to fix me up so I can pursue my career and my dream of playing in the NHL… I wouldn’t be doing BOTB without him, so it’s all come full circle down the road.”

The season after the injury, Marshall had 83 points for the 67’s, which impressed the Toronto Maple Leafs enough to take him 23rd overall in 1992. He was traded to Dallas in 1994 and won his first Stanley Cup with the Stars five years later. His best offensive season came with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001-02, when he had a career-high 15 goals. The New Jersey Devils picked him up for the 2003 playoffs and Marshall scored six goals, including the series clincher in triple overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2, as the Devils went on to win their third Cup.

“To chip in six goals, it didn’t matter,” he says. “If I didn’t get any goals and we win the Stanley Cup, I’d be just as happy.”

Who knows how Marshall’s life would have turned out if he’d listened to the naysayers, but it’d be hard to imagine it being better spent than living out his NHL dream.

“Life’s too short,” he says. “If you don’t have fun, why are you doing it?”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2, 2013 edition of The Hockey News. For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to THN magazine.