By Chris Kazarian
At the end of June, 17-year-old Mike Nichols was drafted by the FHL’s Danbury Whalers. He regularly texts Maple Leafs left winger James van Riemsdyk and talks often with former New York Rangers star Adam Graves. And he was a featured guest on WFAN’s Boomer & Carton Show in November before heading to Madison Square Garden later that evening, celebrating his favorite team’s 5-0 blanking of the Pittsburgh Penguins inside the Rangers’ dressing room.
These days Nichols is living every teenager’s dream. Only it took a nightmare for him to get there.
Nichols entered that personal hell on January 4, the night he donned a pair of hockey skates as a forward for Monroe High School, just as he had done the past four years. It would be one of the best games of his senior season as he notched one goal and two assists en route to a 7-2 lead over Vernon High School.
And then as the second period was winding down, Nichols chased the puck into the offensive end while on a penalty kill. “I was skating down and slowed a second or two to regain control of the puck and set up a move to fake out the goalie,” Nichols said.
At that exact moment, the senior co-captain was checked from behind, hitting the boards in Skylands Ice World arena headfirst. “As soon as I hit the boards my body went numb,” Nichols said. “I couldn’t move anything. I tried to get up. Nothing moved.”
His father, Steven Nichols, rushed onto the ice to be with his son. “He was smiling the whole time on the ice… He told me how he was the best player on the ice today and he was having a really good game,” he said. “It was an amazing thing. I will never forget it for the rest of my life.”
It is that attitude that has carried Mike through the fracture of his C-5 vertebrae, requiring spinal cord surgery to fuse his fourth and sixth vertebrae together. He spent five months in and out of the hospital and rehab, celebrating his birthday on April 28 by being taken off a ventilator.
His milestones have now changed, shaped by one single hit that has left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair. In September, when his high school classmates were beginning their college careers, Mike had his tracheostomy tube removed from his throat.
There have been moments of sadness. They arrive when he remembers he is no longer able to do the things he once did - like dress himself. Or go to the refrigerator to get food. Or skate.
“I can’t play the game I love anymore,” he said.
But he does not allow his mind to linger in these dark places for too long. It is part disposition – “I never ask, ‘Why me?’” he said – and partly because the injury has given his life a new purpose.
Prior to the hit Mike’s plans were simple: he was set to enroll at Widener University in the fall where he was to play collegiate hockey.
Now his goals are smaller, but more meaningful. He not only wants to walk. He wants to skate. “I’m a hockey player,” Mike said. “I got hurt, but I said, ‘I’ll be back.’ Since January 5 I’ve been working towards that.”
To skate again will not only require faith, but action and sacrifice. What exactly does that look like? Since January dad has yet to return to his job at Verizon where he has worked as a repairman for over 20 years. Instead Steven’s focus has been on his son, all while he and his wife Christine raise two other children still at home: Brian, 15, and Julianna, 12.
Three times a week he drives Mike to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, for physical and occupational therapy. Health insurance pays for it, but at some point that will stop. And insurance does not cover every expense, like retrofitting the Nichols’ home or the cost of a handicapped accessible van.
This is where the hockey community has stepped in, demonstrating exactly what it means to be a community. It started shortly after Mike lay motionless on the ice. Immediately, Mike began receiving well wishes from friends and strangers alike on Twitter, all with the hashtag #PrayForMikey.
But it did not end there. In the ensuing weeks several high school teams donated proceeds of their games to the Nichols family. In March the New Jersey Devils hosted a charity game that raised $25,000 for Mike. And in December the team that drafted him, the Danbury Whalers, invited him onto the ice for the first time since his injury.
“We plan on having him on the ice to record playing time so he can be listed as a professional hockey player,” said Whalers CEO Alan Friedman just weeks earlier.
NHL stars and alumni like van Riemsdyk, Graves, Ken Daneyko and Bruce Driver have all lent their support for Nichols.
And one of his close friends and former teammates, Ian McGirr, penned a rap song “Miracles,” that is being sold on iTunes to help defray Mike’s medical expenses. As McGirr raps, Al Michaels’ play-by-play of the final minute of the US Olympic hockey team’s 1980 win over the Soviet Union can be heard in the background.
It is a befitting choice, demonstrating that a miracle to one person is different for another. So while Mike’s miracle will be to one day skate again, he understands he must first learn how to walk.
Each day he continues to make progress, not only for himself, but for others as he uses his story to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries and as an advocate for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s “Big Idea” campaign in support of epidural stimulation research. “I think the more important goal other than being able to walk or skate or do the things I love to do is helping others who are paralyzed, not only those who are paralyzed, but who are handicapped or disabled,” Mike said. “I know firsthand how difficult it is to live this way. I want to make a difference so that one day there is a world without wheelchairs. I hope to god before I die I can see that happen.”