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The inspirational story of Willow Herman: 'I’m just going to keep going until I can’t'

Suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, 17-year-old Willow Herman has broken more than 30 bones, but she hasn't let her physical challenges – or the difficulties of being a girl in the boys' game – slow her down.
via Bauer

via Bauer

Willow Herman estimates she and her parents stopped counting the broken bones not long after her 10th birthday. At the time, the number was well into the double digits. If her mother, Amy, had to venture a guess, though, she suspects the number reaches into the 30s, somewhere around 35 or so. Among the injuries have been hand fractures, broken ribs, arms and a femur. The most recent? Funny story, that.

You see, Willow, 17, is a goaltender. She’s also fearless, the kind of keeper that’s not afraid to take a chance or two. So, when faced with a shooter barrelling in on a breakaway, she reached deep into her bag of tricks and channelled a legend. “I tried Dominik Hasek-ing him,” Willow said, referencing the charging, sliding stops ‘The Dominator’ made famous. “He fell on top of me and broke my ankle.”

She tells the story with the type of nonchalance reserved for the recounting of a run to the corner store, and then casually adds that she finished the game despite the pain. She’s used to this by now. Suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, Willow has had to deal with these breaks her entire life. They’re fewer now than they were before, far less frequent than when she was a child and dealt with what are called fracture cycles, periods during which she would suffer multiple breaks in a short span, the injuries sometimes overlapping. Now, her breaks are limited to about one per year.

Given her condition, goaltending might seem an odd choice for Willow. She understands the irony that comes with playing the only position where she’s expected to throw her body in front of slapshots when any puck in the wrong place comes with a high risk of injury. But as she grew up with the game in West Virginia, goaltending chose Willow, not necessarily the other way around. Skating by three and playing inline hockey by five, her youth team rotated through netminders. When Willow’s opportunity came, she loved it. It also turned out, bizarre as it may sound, that it was the safest place for her on the ice. While she’s getting pelted with rubber, Willow’s father, Aaron, said, she’s not at constant risk of colliding with other players, getting tripped while skating full speed or being sent crashing into the boards.

Still, playing the position comes with pain. As the breaks have added up over the years, there are days where crawling out of bed and going about her day hurts. And when Willow is in the crease long enough, pain can start shooting through her ankles. “It’s discouraging at times because I take a lot of painkillers and it gets very annoying because I’m only 17,” Willow said. “I shouldn’t have to take a thousand painkillers just to feel like a normal person would on one of their bad days. Sometimes it’s hard, but I try to avoid thinking about the worst-case scenario and think about the best case. On my better days, I don’t need much, and I can get up and go do stuff.”

This weekend in Toronto, Willow will attend the Clarkson Cup as a guest of honor and drop the ceremonial puck before the Calgary Inferno and Les Canadiennes de Montreal clash for the CWHL crown. And during the contest, her story will be told as the latest in Bauer’s ‘The Women’s Movement Never Stops’ series, which blew up online earlier this week with the release of ‘Jewelry.’ The minute-long video has been viewed more than one million times and been shared by more than 30,000 people. The series is part of Bauer’s increased commitment to the women’s game, which includes continuing to provide equipment to the CWHL and adding, among others, Calgary’s Rebecca Johnston, the Markham Thunder’s Laura Stacey and Lee Stecklein, who scored the Isobel Cup-winning goal for the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps last weekend, to the roster.

What Willow wants people to know about her story, however, is that it’s about more than the physical challenges she’s had to overcome, about more than her fight with osteogenesis imperfecta. In fact, Bauer's first introduction to Willow came by way of a letter she had written to the company about the challenges she faces as a girl playing boys' hockey. “We really wanted to provide some support for her,” said Mary-Kay Messier, Bauer’s vice-president of marketing. “So it started in the way of a phone call, just encouraging her and having a dialogue. Subsequent to that, we ended up finding out about this rare bone disorder she had and the story really started to come to light with how many challenges and obstacles this young woman had to overcome to play hockey, but she was willing to sacrifice in order to do that.”

Make no mistake, despite everything she’s gone through just to play hockey in the first place, Willow has heard it all playing with and against the boys. She’s heard that she’s too small, or that girls don’t play hockey, that she’s not this and she’s not that. She’s had her playing time limited by coaches, only for teammates of hers to stand up and say they wouldn’t play if Willow wasn’t given a fair chance. “When she shows up to the evaluations, the boys show up and they get to play. She shows up as a girl and she has to give it five times the work, which isn’t right and isn’t fair,” Amy said, fighting back tears. “But I want her to show other little girls that you do the hard work and it will pay off.”

Willow admitted that there are times where it’s difficult and the comments upset her. There are nights where her parents will sit with her and talk her through it. There’s no keeping her down for long, though, Aaron said, calling Willow “beyond a doubt the most positive person that I have ever met.” She exudes that attitude, too. It shines through even in a brief conversation. And she uses the negativity that sometimes surrounds her as fuel to prove doubters wrong. That goes double for those she plays against. “When a specific player I know thinks that way, I go into the game not letting them score,” Willow said. “I will pick out a person and even if we lose, as long as they don’t score, that makes me happy, because the look on their face when they run their mouth and still can’t score…”

From time to time, that can lead to Aaron and Amy’s favorite part of any game. Sitting in the stands, watching their daughter play, they hear the chatter of other spectators, and when the parent of a player on the opposing team comments about Willow and brings up the fact that it’s a girl out there stopping the boys, Aaron and Amy light up. “In a way, it’s great that it happens,” Aaron added. “But in the same sense, when they’re on the ice, she’s just a goalie and happens to be good. And, oh yeah, she’s a girl.”

Willow has found some additional support – and some extra inspiration – recently, too. Playing with her club teams, it’s been rare for Willow to find other girls and women to speak with about the unique challenges that girls face when playing on boys' teams. In October, however, Bauer invited Willow and her family to Miami, where she got the chance to meet and speak with Les Canadiennes superstar and Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin. “To be able to talk to her and see that when she was my age she was going through all this and now she’s playing in the Clarkson Cup on Sunday, fighting for (a championship), it shows that you can keep going,” Willow said.

And that’s Willow’s plan: to simply keep going. Amy has a rule that one really bad break and Willow's days in the blue paint are done. But until that time comes, she's going to keep chasing her dreams. “I’d love to play in college, I’d love to go as far as I possibly can,” she said. “But as of right now I’m just worried about my next practice and my next game. I’m going to keep fighting to be the best I can, but I don’t know how far I can go, so I’m just going to keep going until I can’t.”

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