Hornung's love of the game endures

Originally Published: October 4, 2004
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

It's Friday night in late September at the Agridome in Regina, Saskatchewan, and Brad Hornung has taken up his familiar place in the stands. He is no longer observing the Pats -- or their latest Western Hockey League opponent -- in any official capacity, his job as an amateur scout with the Chicago Blackhawks having been terminated at the end of the past season as the team, like the rest of the NHL, prepared for the current lockout.

Brad Hornung
Brad Hornung keeps tabs on players with his voice-operated computer.
Still, he is here, taking mental notes, watching the best junior hockey players in Western Canada cycle through the building.

It's important to stay sharp, the 35-year-old explains, so he treats every game as though he were on assignment.

"I'm watching it that way. That's exactly what I do, just pretend that I was filling out a report and making mental notes and go from there. I haven't been hired by anybody, but I want to keep myself involved just in case after the lockout there might be something," Hornung said. "I want to keep watching the kids for the draft like I normally do."

If and when the lockout ends, and if and when someone calls seeking his services, Hornung wants to be able to make a smooth transition back to the job he loved.

Hornung is, like the vast majority affected by the lockout, waiting and wondering in no-man's land. But unlike the vast majority, Hornung is a quadriplegic, his life forever changed by the game he has always loved and which has sustained him in the face of daunting challenges.

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Against the numbing rhetoric about salary caps and luxury taxes, Hornung's story stands out as a testament to family, community and loyalty, the very bedrock of the game.

"This is a story of perseverance, a story of family, a story of courage, of commitment, everything," said Doug Sauter, a 30-year coaching veteran who was behind the bench the night of Hornung's life-changing injury. "Brad Hornung is at the top of my list as far as character and human beings. He's probably one of the most humble guys that I know. You'll never see a more positive guy. He's pretty special."

As with many Canadians, hockey is in Hornung's blood. His mother, Terry, grew up in a small town south of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, not too far from the Montana border, the daughter of the local team's president. She married Larry Hornung, a defenseman on her father's team, and accompanied him back and forth across the continent -- soon with a son and daughter in tow -- from Kansas City to Buffalo to St. Louis to Winnipeg to Edmonton to San Diego. When Larry Hornung finished his career 48 NHL games and hundreds of minor league games later, he worked with alcoholics, then become an NHL scout. He was employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs when he died from cancer three years ago last May.

Brad Hornung learned a lot about hockey while listening to his father discuss the game with colleagues. A talented, hardworking player, Hornung was in his second year as a junior when he suited up for the Pats and Sauter, an old friend of his father's.

Sauter has always likened Hornung's hockey sense and defensive acumen to that of a WHL opponent named Joe Sakic. Whenever the Pats faced Sakic, Sauter would have Hornung shadow the talented forward, usually with great success.

Sauter has become one of the most successful minor pro coaches in history, and is beginning his 10th season with Oklahoma of the Central Hockey League. But even now he recalls the details of that night 18 years ago with unusual clarity.

The Pats were playing their archrivals, the Theo Fleury-led Moose Jaw Warriors, and were on a 5-on-3 power play.

"You could cut the intensity in the game with a knife," Sauter recalled.

Hornung was driving to the net when Moose Jaw's top penalty killer, Troy Edwards, gave him an extra shove from behind. The momentum carried Hornung past the net and into the boards head first, damaging Hornung's third cervical vertebra and spinal cord.

"It was the first time I'd ever jumped on the ice as a coach. I knew he was hurt bad," Sauter said.

By the time Sauter and the team's trainer got to him, Hornung had swallowed his tongue and had stopped breathing. The trainer grabbed a carpet knife from the overalls pocket of the Zamboni operator and cut an air hole in Hornung's trachea.

Brad Hornung
Hornung still has the memory of his first WHL goal -- and his love for the game.
"To this day, I swear he was squeezing my hand, even though the doctors tell me it's not possible," Sauter said.

Sauter's voice is heavy with emotion as he describes taking the young Edwards into Hornung's hospital room.

"It was a pretty tough thing to see, both those players talking," Sauter recalled.

Hornung, who is paralyzed from the neck down and is unable to move any of his extremities, recalls nothing of the accident. One of his most vivid memories of that time is during his early days in intensive care. He was watching hockey.

It didn't occur to Hornung to be angry, to turn his back on the game that had promised so much but had exacted a much heavier toll.

"I never really thought of ever associating the game with anything negative. It didn't bother me at all," Hornung said.

Occasionally, over the years, he has watched games and seen a hit from behind or dirty play.

"And it scares you a bit," he said.

If the game has no conscience, it has a memory. The WHL renamed its most sportsmanlike player award after Hornung. The Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella organization for the three major junior leagues, changed its rules relating to checking from behind. The Pats gave him lifetime season tickets.

"The hockey world right after the accident was tremendous in its support," Sauter said. "Who knows? His accident may have saved lots of other kids."

Hornung returned to school less than a month after the injury and eventually completed his high school program, later enrolling in arts and business administration courses at the University of Regina.

"He never lost his initiative," said his mom, Terry. "It made it a lot easier for us because he was never depressed. There was no anger; there was just hurt."

During the mid-1990s, Hornung met former Winnipeg Jets vice president and GM Mike Smith, who had worked with Hornung's father and who was writing a book called "Life After Hockey" in between management gigs. Smith was so impressed with Hornung's attitude and take on the game that he offered Hornung a job soon after becoming general manager of the Blackhawks in 2000. Hornung served as an intern responsible for culling media reports on teams, players and issues throughout the NHL, before he was made a part-time amateur scout under Bill Lesuk, another friend of Hornung's father.

While working for the Hawks, Hornung attended entry drafts in Toronto and Nashville.

When Smith was fired early last season and his key people -- Marshall Johnston, Joe Yannetti and Lesuk -- were later dispatched, Hornung wasn't surprised when his contract wasn't renewed at the end of the season. Assistant general manager Dale Tallon insisted the move was purely economic in light of the pending lockout. Either way, Hornung views the move as simply part of the business.

"It was a great experience for me. It didn't quite end the way I wanted it. But that's the hockey business," he said. "I knew what the possibilities were, and I'm not going to start complaining now."

Because he requires constant assistance, Hornung lives in a long-term care facility. His medical care is subsidized by the Canadian government, so the loss of his paycheck -- roughly $10,000 a year -- has not affected his health. It also hasn't noticeably changed his financial situation, he said. He has a specially equipped van, which is housed in the facility's basement and is used by friends and family members who collect him and take him to Pats' games and other outings. He is a regular visitor at his mother's condo for Sunday dinner, and on nice days he travels the short distance by himself in his head-controlled wheelchair.

The rink has become more than a place for games and players and statistics. Hornung goes to renew old acquaintances, strike up new friendships, to be where he is comfortable.

"I don't enjoy it just for the game," he said. "There's always the people you talk to before the games. The familiar faces. It's a good outing."

He knows that if he goes to three or four games in a row it will tax his limited energy supply. But at this stage, he knows his limitations.

And so, he waits, like the rest of the hockey world, for a resolution to the NHL's big mess.

"When it ends, I'll wait a little while. If it doesn't happen, I'll have to plan and do something else," he said. "I try and look at the bright side of things. I don't know if I'm much different than most people."

Hornung said he'd even go back to work for the Blackhawks.

"I don't have any misgivings about working for any NHL team," he said. "It would be an honor. A person doesn't want to forget that."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.