NORWOOD, Mass. -- One of the greatest parts of hockey is the tight-knit community within the sport. That's why it's not uncommon to hear stories such as the heartwarming one that came together here Sunday when two young men fighting devastating injuries were pulled together by hockey and the Boston Bruins.
On Jan. 23, Matt Brown, then a sophomore hockey player at Norwood High School, suffered a spinal cord injury in a game and was paralyzed from the neck down. The plight of Brown, now 16, caught the attention of Army Sergeant Lucas Carr, 33, originally of Norwood and now residing in South Boston.
Carr, a lifelong Bruins fan, grew up idolizing Terry O'Reilly and Cam Neely and tried to emulate them on the ice. Carr, however, chose a much different career: fighting for his country as an Army Ranger.
One of Carr's best friends, fellow soldier SPC Abraham Odisho, 23, from Arizona, had also suffered a devastating injury in March 2009 when their platoon was ambushed in Ad Dawr, Iraq. Odisho lost his right foot and calf and went through eight surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Watching his friend go through emotional and physical stress, Carr told Odisho about Brown and the inspiration he had become in the hockey community as he battled back from his injury. Odisho immediately connected with Brown's story, and he and Carr decided that they should travel to Norwood to see Brown and present the injured hockey player with an American flag they carried through all of their missions, including the one on which Odisho was wounded.
They also named a mission by their platoon "Operation Mustang Hope" in honor of Brown and the Norwood Mustangs hockey team. The flag was signed by all the soldiers in Bravo Company 2-35, 3rd Platoon, and then brought back to Massachusetts, where it was then signed by the Bruins.
"Luke told me about Matt and I was instantly inspired by his story and felt the need to do something for him," Odisho said, "so Luke said, 'Why don't we present Matt with this flag and show him how much he inspired us?' I loved the idea."
On Sunday, Odisho, Carr, Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference and Josh "Scruffy" Wallace, the bagpiper for the Dropkick Murphys, went to Brown's house and presented the youngster with the framed flag.
"Matt is a big inspiration and to have that happen at such a young age with his whole life still ahead of him, he could have felt sorry for himself. But now you see how hard he's working to recover and the spirit he has," Odisho said of Brown. "Just hearing his story was inspiring for me. But to be here, I'm just kind of speechless. He's pretty amazing."
"When I heard that, I was absolutely speechless," Brown said. "He has his own difficulties and he called me an inspiration, which is pretty wild to think about. To see him go out of his way, travel across the country to come see me, it's pretty touching."
For Carr, the moment couldn't have gone better. To see Odisho and Brown connect and inspire each other was his goal from the beginning and to unite hockey and the military made it even better.
Carr had made that connection before. He converted his fellow Army Rangers and soldiers of Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Platoon and 25th Infantry Division into Bruins fans. He even convinced them to carry a Bruins flag on a mission that became known as "Operation Black And Gold." That flag was presented to the Bruins last December, about a month before Brown's injury, and now hangs outside the Bruins' dressing room at TD Garden.
"I grew up loving Terry O'Reilly and Cam Neely because they just gave their all to their teams every game and that's what being an Army Ranger or a soldier is about," Carr said. "You sacrifice for each other and you have a common cause. So there's always been those roots in me. I played hockey myself and I cheered for the Big Bad Bruins and I wanted to carry that passion with me overseas and spread it to my platoon.
"Then with what happened to Abe, that was an amazing story with how quickly he was recovering and then with what happened with Matt Brown, I tried to draw us all together. You have a wounded soldier that sacrificed for his country and a hockey player that is now battling to walk again and both are huge inspirations.
"We already had completed 'Operation Black and Gold' for the Bruins and now 'Operation Mustang Hope' has been completed and now we present this flag to Matt. Just like a hockey team, we're all working together for a common cause and that's to support Abe and Matt and let them know we're always here for them. Both of them in their own ways are inspirations to all and I'm just so happy to bring this together."
Ference was in awe of what he witnessed at the Brown home.
"What they've done for Matt is just awesome," Ference said. "It's like a tight family. Almost like the Boston attitude of sticking together and all for one. Everyone helping each other out and I'm just honored to be a part of this and to know people like Matt, Lucas, Abe and Scruffy. Everyone just working together to help someone in need, that's what life is about. It's really nice to see that with all the bad things you read about in the paper every day, there's good things, too, and good people. That's really nice to see."
Ference still can't understand how soldiers or someone in Matt's position can look at him or other NHLers as "heroes."
"Just being in that picture with them and the flag puts you in your place," Ference said. "The thing with Matt, I think we can relate to him because it could happen to any of us on our next shift, so I think there's that bond there. So we can sympathize and we offer our support but still what we do can't compare to what he's going through. Then you see guys like Lucas or Abe and it's incredible to think of the sacrifice they made or are still making. So they are really my heroes, Matt, Lucas and Abe."
Brown couldn't have been more thrilled or honored. He continues to receive plenty of support locally, from the Bruins ("They've been amazing in that they keep coming back to help and don't forget me") and from around the world.
But this was a moment he will never forget. As he spoke, he was still shocked to see Carr, Odisho, Ference and Wallace there with the signed flag and also some used and signed sticks from the Bruins that Ference brought.
"At least I didn't have to go through Ranger school to get all of this," Brown joked. "That was crazy though and I'm really speechless. I had no idea this was going to happen. The Bruins have been great and given me enough but then to see Andrew and Scruffy come too it was just great. But yeah, to think where that flag has been and what Abe and Lucas went through for our country, I'm just honored and really appreciate this. I won't forget it."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.