As Monroe (Monroe Township, N.J.) High School ice hockey player Michael Nichols, who suffered a broken neck during a head-on collision into the boards in a game Saturday night, recovers from surgery, the outpouring of support for the senior forward continues to swell.
A spokeswoman for Morristown Medical Center, where Nichols underwent an operation on his fractured C5 vertebra Sunday afternoon, told New Jersey Press Media that Nichols remains in “critical” condition.
Nichols was breathing on his own Sunday night, according to Monroe ice hockey coach Jerry Minter.
The Nichols family has asked for privacy, according to the team’s official web site, and hospital officials, at this time, cannot provide further details on the player’s condition.
According to a statement posted on the team’s official website Monday morning, “Michael had a good, restful night. Anesthesia is slowly wearing off and he is in good spirits, acting like the Mikey we all know and love.”
In an interview with nbcnewyork.com, Nichols’ father, Steven, said his son told him after the collision that he could not “feel anything.”
Nichols, according to the published report, told his father, “Dad, that ice that I couldn’t get up from the other night, I’m going back to it. I’m going to stand up on it.”
A hospital spokeswoman said she was not able to confirm or deny the nbcnewyork.com report which said “it’s too early to say whether (Nichols) will walk or skate again.”
Minter and Monroe Athletics Director Greg Beyer met with Nichols’ teammates Monday afternoon. The Falcons are scheduled to play against Woodbridge on Wednesday. Beyer said Monroe players will not be made available for comment.
Hundreds of well wishes from across the country have been left for Nichols on Twitter with the #PrayForMikey hashtag. Several New Jersey teams are donating all of the gate receipts from upcoming games to the Nichols family, while others are wearing stickers with Nichols’ No. 23 on their helmets in tribute to the injured Monroe player.
“Right now,” Beyer said, “people’s prayers are most important; and just people’s support. It’s really brought people together. They are all concerned about Michael, and right now it’s a wait-and-see type of thing.”
Beyer said he has been inundated with phone calls from athletics administrators and coaches of varsity ice hockey programs throughout the state, inquiring if anything can be done to help.
“I think the camaraderie that the sport of hockey enjoys is unique,” said Dave Fischer, a spokesman for USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to (Nichols) and his family and everyone connected with the situation. When something of this magnitude happens to any player, there’s heartfelt support from people at all levels of the game.
“On the good side of things, there are so few of these types of injuries, fortunately, but, boy, when we are faced with one, the hockey community as a whole comes together.”
According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, winter sports (sledding, ice hockey and snowboarding) accounted for 10.8 percent (39 of 359) of reported sports and recreation related spinal cord injuries throughout the U.S. from September 2005 through May 2012.
Nichols was injured during the second period of a game against Vernon at Skylands Ice World Arena in Sussex County. An opponent checked Nichols, who already was off balance, while trying to shoot a loose puck in the offensive zone. Nichols was sent head-first into the boards.
“He’s not the type of kid to sit on the ice,” said Minter, who rushed to Nichols’ side. “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.”
A helicopter transported Nichols to the hospital, where doctors identified a fracture to his C5 vertebra, one of eight cervical vertebrae.
A statement on the team’s official web site asks that no one “place any blame” or “jump to conclusions” regarding an impetus for Nichols’ injury.
Catastrophic injuries, such as that which Nichols suffered, often lead to a clamoring for rule changes or increased enforcement, specifically regarding allowable checking, according to Fischer.
“When an incident like this happens, it does bring people out of the woodwork calling for modification of rules, and that’s all fine,” Fischer said. “The debate on trying to have the safest possible environment for players should always be happening and certainly happens in (USA Hockey’s headquarters) every day. When we have an injury like this one, certainly it will raise the incidence of questions as to how we can better influence and continue to influence player safety.”
St. Joseph ice hockey coach Ryan Carter, whose team will play a benefit game later this month for Nichols, with all proceeds benefitting his family, said he planned to speak with his charges before practice Monday night, telling them not to “play scared” following reports of the injury.
“They still have to continue to play hockey,” Carter said. “They can’t second guess their skills and talents and what they do on the ice. When they hesitate, they are going to play scared, and that’s when they are going to get hurt. It was a freak accident. It happened in a split second. The game is a fast game, it’s a collision game. Unfortunately, these injuries, I don’t think you can get them out of the game.”
St. John Vianney and St. Rose will donate all of the proceeds from their game, including the 50-50 raffle, to the Nichols family. Brick Township and Point Pleasant Boro will hold a similar benefit game on Wednesday.
“Some of our players and some of the St. Rose player have played with this young man on the club circuit, so there is a connection from both of our teams with the Nichols family,” St. John Vianney Athletics Director Rich Lamberson said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with them, as well.”
An alternate captain, Nichols entered this season having recorded eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points. At the end of his freshman campaign, Nichols received the program’s ICE award for Intense Consistent Effort. He is listed at 5-foot-7, 135 pounds on the team’s official website.
“He’s a fearless competitor, a kid that went hard constantly from the minute he got on the ice,” said Carter, whose reigning Greater Middlesex Conference championship team defeated Monroe on Dec. 18. “He didn’t care who he was going against. He never backed down.”
On the team’s official Facebook page, the Falcons offered “Thanks to all the first responders (Saturday) for doing an awesome job stabilizing and transporting Mike and “Thanks to the (arena) staff. You were all well-trained, composed and compassionate in our difficult time.”
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 to repair a fractured C5 vertebra and to address a traumatic dislocation of his C6 vertebra. Denehy 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 website, 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.”
Greg Tufaro also writes for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.