Atkinson makes emotional debut for Catamounts
BURLINGTON, Vt. -- "A baloney slice away from death."
That's how Chris Atkinson's high school hockey coach, John Hynes, described the near-fatal, on-ice injury his star player suffered on Feb. 25, 2006. Anyone who witnessed the gruesome nature of what happened to Atkinson that night knows Hynes' words are not exaggerated. Not if they saw the pool of blood that soaked through Atkinson's white U.S. Under-18 National Development hockey team jersey. Nor the immediacy in which Atkinson was whisked to the nearest trauma ward. Nor if they knew that the kid lost all movement in his left arm.
And really, it all resulted from an utterly freak occurrence, even in the naturally violent surroundings of a hockey rink. Playing a game at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, at the time Atkinson was one of the top senior forwards in the country, a highly sought recruit who had already landed a scholarship at the University of Vermont. It seemed as if his entire future lay perfectly in front of him. Having already racked up 76 career points for the prestigious U.S. Under-18 program, Atkinson was destined for collegiate stardom. His path was obstacle-free.
Then it happened. Trailing an RIT player along the boards near his own bench, Atkinson's world was suddenly turned upside down. His teammate and close friend, U.S. defenseman Trent Palm, swooped in for a back check on his opponent when the RIT player countered Palm's maneuver and somehow sent him flying in the direction of Atkinson. Performing an involuntary midair flip, one of Palm's skates caught Atkinson square on the left side of his neck -- directly slicing his jugular.
Hauntingly, he saw it coming. "I was looking at the play, and after [Palm] got flipped I saw his skate coming toward me," he recounts. "I closed my eyes, and the next thing I know, I'm going down. I thought my collarbone was broken because I couldn't move my left arm. Then I felt the heat from all the blood pouring down."
U.S. team trainer Dave Cotner rushed to Atkinson's side, holding his neck and attempting to cover the wound, which was producing a virtual geyser of blood. Cotner and Rochester EMT Chuck Livingston assisted Atkinson off the ice and into the nearest hallway, laying him on a table and cutting off his jersey, necklace and pads. The looks on some of the faces in that hallway still haunt Atkinson to this day.
"Everyone was in shock. I could see that my jersey was pretty much red."
Chris' father, Mike Atkinson, had sprinted down from his seat in the stands and was at his son's side as an ambulance swiftly transported Chris to Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital just minutes after the collision took place.
"I knew it was bad," Mike says. "It was an innocent play, but the incident itself was extremely violent. [Palm] just did one of those figure skating kicks. It was a one-in-a-million shot."
Two hours later, Atkinson's jugular had been masterfully repaired by trauma surgeon Dr. Julius Chang. His life had been saved.
"Dr. Chang was tremendous," Mike says. "He put Chris back together."
The next question in Chris Atkinson's mind was, of course: How long am I going to be out? Because Palm's wayward skate had also managed to sever a major nerve in Atkinson's left arm, initially, the answer to his question was grim.
"The doctor said I may never be able to move my [left] arm again," he recalls, almost scoffing at such a notion. "Hearing that made me pretty down. But then a nurse said that with surgery and a year of rehab, I'd be good to go."
With the Under-18 World Hockey Championships just three months away, Atkinson had hoped to be back much sooner than a year. "As days went by though, I knew it would take a lot of work if I ever wanted to play again."
Just getting that arm to move properly again was the first hurdle. Because the striking blow had somehow severed a nerve in his shoulder, Atkinson had no arm movement above his left elbow. Shaking hands or picking up a piece of paper were suddenly arduous tasks. He would need a second surgery.
Fortunately, Chang and others referred Atkinson to a St. Louis doctor named Barbara McKinnon, a specialist in nerve transplants for soldiers who have sustained shrapnel-related injuries. So three months after Atkinson's horrific accident, in May 2006, Atkinson made the trip out to St. Louis. There McKinnon performed a 12-hour nerve resection on him in which she was able to reconnect a nerve in Atkinson's back with the muscles in his arm. This enabled his nerve endings to start firing again and rebooted his muscle memory.
Within weeks, Atkinson was able to play golf, and his road to recovery was under way. "The next thing you know, he's raising his hand, he can pick up a piece of paper," Mike Atkinson remembers.
Still facing a lengthy rehab, Chris was unable to play in the Under-18 World Hockey Championships in Sweden shortly after the surgery on his arm. "That was a big bummer," Chris admits. "We'd trained two years for that."
Hynes, however, refused to allow Atkinson to miss the overseas festivities all together. Without telling the rest of his team, the U.S. coach bought Atkinson a plane ticket to fly out to Sweden and, in his words, "surprise the guys and give them hope." The ploy worked. Not only surprised but inspired by their hobbled teammate's arrival, the U.S. team beat the Czech Republic and Finland on its way to winning the gold medal.
"Just watching the games -- the culture, the atmosphere. That was really special," Atkinson said.
Upon Atkinson's stateside return, however, reality set in: If he ever wanted to play hockey again, he would have to work extremely hard. To its credit, Vermont did not revoke Atkinson's scholarship offer, instead electing to redshirt Atkinson his first year on campus to give him time to strengthen his left arm. Atkinson took his rehab head-on, working with team trainer Gregg Brueck and strength coach Paul Goodman three to four times a week, and never missing a practice.
"After Chris' dad called me to tell me what happened, I was purely worried about Chris Atkinson the person," UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said. "The only downside to his coming to school in the fall was that he had to start his clock -- four playing seasons in five years. But we knew he would be in an environment where he was pushed every day."
Brueck and Goodman did the pushing. The rehab regimen they put Atkinson on was geared entirely toward strengthening an arm weakened by months of hanging almost idly by his side. A steady diet of rotational movements involving straps and bands, tossing a medicine ball in a pool and massages to the left shoulder became Atkinson's regular routine.
Says Brueck: "He had lost a lot of strength in that arm. We worked a lot of smaller muscle groups that don't get worked in the weight room."
Atkinson made the most of his redshirt season, and by August 2007, his hard work officially paid off: He was cleared to play. In front of family and friends, Atkinson stepped on the ice for his first hockey game in more than 19 months in UVM's home scrimmage against Acadia on Oct. 7, 2007.
"It was a big thrill," he says. "I was like, 'This is pretty sweet.' My adrenaline was definitely pumping. I got hit a few times and it felt good to know I could take a hit."
Atkinson's parents made the trip up from Albany, N.Y., for their son's emotional return.
"It was unbelievable," said Atkinson's mother, Robin. "We were just so thankful he lived through that whole ordeal. I never saw a kid work so hard with that arm. He was determined to get back on the ice. When he did, it put chills through you."
Growing stronger every day, Atkinson has become a regular contributor since his return to the ice. Playing on UVM's fourth line, he has appeared in 15 of the Catamounts' first 22 games in the 2007-08 season. Slowly but surely, Atkinson is working his way back into becoming the can't-miss talent he was prior to the accident, improving with every game.
"John Hynes described him perfectly: He's got fourth-line mentality with first-line skill," Sneddon says. "He's overcome such a huge obstacle in such a positive manner. That first year he was practicing with one arm. It was a lot of hard work, [but] he had such a willingness to keep working at it. I can't remember many days where there were signs of frustration. It's been remarkable to watch him progress over the last year and a half."
Though Atkinson admitted there were some "Why me?" moments along the way, he has never blamed Palm for his unintended role in the accident.
"He felt really bad about it, but I just told him: 'It's part of the game. Suck it up,'" Atkinson says of Palm, who now plays for Minnesota Duluth. "We made a pact to hang out with each other as much as possible after the accident."
As for Atkinson, he says that while his life-threatening collision still lurks in the back of his head, he rarely thinks about it in game situations unless he happens to be skating along the left hash mark. His left arm remains noticeably smaller than his right, and the scar on the left side of his neck is a constant reminder to all of how close he came to not being here. (Though, as he says, "The scar attracts girls.")
Atkinson hasn't forgotten what happened -- how could he? -- but he can now dream the same dreams he did two years ago.
"I haven't given up on playing in the NHL," he said. "That hasn't changed -- I'm still fighting for it. Maybe some day someone will actually interview me because of how good I am."
Chris Preston is a staff writer for the Shelburne News and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at ChrisPreston@shelburnenews.com.