The Passing of Travis Roy
When writer Justin Pelletier, one of the best voices in New England sports, shared his beautiful piece on the passing of Travis Roy with me, I asked him if it needed a home. I am honored that he let me share it here . Thank you, Justin.
There is a red binder somewhere in the basement, tucked into a gray storage bin next to some tokens from Jillian’s, a stuffed eagle with a noose around its neck and a piece of what was once a plush husky, mercilessly torn apart by the student section of fans during a hockey game against Northeastern.
The seal of Boston University is printed on the cheap vinyl binder cover. Inside, clear plastic sheets hold ticket stubs from hockey games, cut-out Daily Free Press stories and a game program or two. One of those ticket stubs is from a game between BU and Providence College on Oct. 30, 1999.
There’s also an 8x10 clear plastic sleeve with a tattered-around-the-edges, yellowed and crinkled newspaper article from the Sun Journal in Lewiston, Maine, dated October 31, 1999.
Though they are not, those pages should be stapled together, much like the events of Oct. 30, 1999, and those of a fateful night some four years and 10 days earlier are stapled to the memories of the hockey community.
I never got to play hockey with Travis Roy. He was a burgeoning star from the southern part of Maine, and he was four years my senior.
He was also way better than I ever thought of being.
But everyone in Maine’s youth and high school hockey circles knew who he was — he was a star. He played for North Yarmouth Academy, and then for Tabor Academy in Massachusetts before moving on to Boston University, fulfilling a childhood dream of playing NCAA Division I ice hockey, a rare feat for a skater from Maine.
Those dreams were near simultaneously fulfilled and shattered — all in 11 seconds.
On the night of Oct. 20, 1995, stepping onto the ice at Walter Brown Arena represented the validation of a lifetime of dedication, sacrifice and mental fortitude.
Eleven seconds after he hopped the dasher for his first shift, he was charging hard for the puck as was his wont. He caught an edge. He fell awkwardly into the boards. He couldn’t move.
But he was alive.
In the days and months that followed, Travis pushed forward. He was diagnosed quadriplegic, but he never stopped believing that he would one day walk again.
His story has been retold many times, notably by Travis himself in an autobiographical collaboration with E.M. Swift of Sports Illustrated fame that highlighted his road to recovery, and the beginnings of the Travis Roy Foundation.
During this recovery, Travis never let go of his studies. He returned to Boston University. He sat through some of the same classes I did. I was in awe of his dedication. While I sat squirming four or five rows back in a lecture auditorium, trying to position myself where I was least likely to be called upon, Travis wheeled his chair along the aisle to the front of the room. He wanted to be there. He approached his studies the same way he’d approached hockey.
He was inspiring.
Four years and 10 days after those fateful 11 seconds, I cold-called Sun Journal Sports Editor Bob Aube.
Maine native Travis Roy, was back at Walter Brown Arena, and he was going to be honored like no other Boston University player before him.
This Maine native and aspiring journalist wanted to write about it. He said “yes,” gave me a deadline and agreed to pay me.
No longer was I “aspiring.”
The only access I had that night was that ticket. It was too late to apply for credentials, I didn’t work for the student-led Free Press, and given the circumstances, I wasn’t about to walk into a media scrum unannounced. So, ticket and notebook in hand, I sped off to Walter Brown.
Travis wheeled himself onto the ice to raucous applause that night. For the first time in the school’s storied hockey history, BU was retiring a number — Travis’ No. 24.
It was an emotional night, and the Terriers pulled out an emotional win, 3-2 over Providence.
I raced back to my South Campus brownstone dorm, cobbled together the report on the jersey retirement ceremony, dialed up to the Internet (that was a thing in 1999) and sent my story in — on time — via email.
The next day — Halloween — I was officially a published journalist.
Travis, of course, went on to far greater things. He was obstinate in the best sense of the word. His tireless efforts have helped countless people as they, too, have struggled with paralysis. His foundation has raised millions of dollars for research, trying to help others so that they may walk again.
But he never forgot where he came from. He returned to Maine as often as he could, making appearances to benefit youth and high school hockey organizations. Most recently, he was a part of a ceremony to hand out an award that bears his name.
In 1996, after his accident, the Maine Class A Ice Hockey Coaches’ Association created an award to honor Travis’ talent and commitment to the game. The Travis Roy Award is given annually to the player that has an elite combination of talent, character and community service. The first winner was St. Dominic Academy forward Brian Toussaint. The 25th and most recent winner was Lewiston High School senior captain Ryan Pomerleau.
For the first time in several years, Travis made an appearance at the ceremony, albeit virtually due to the global pandemic.
“I’m almost as proud of recognizing the better-skilled hockey players in the state, but more so the Travis Roy Award, I hope it continues to stand for those values, for the character and trying to be more than just a hockey player,” he told the honorees during the ceremony.
Later in the summer, knowing the 25th anniversary was approaching, Travis never shied away from the spotlight, not because he wanted it for himself, but because he knew the more time he could spend talking about his cause, the more resources he could glean to help others in the fight to find a solution.
Travis was a fellow Mainer, hockey player and BU Terrier — all of which he was better at than I.
I’m going to go find that red binder with a cheap vinyl cover today. I’ll leaf through the ticket stubs, pause at some of the programs, and reread at least a few paragraphs off of that tattered-around-the-edges, yellowed and crinkled newspaper article.
And I’m going to add to it: Into one of the unfilled plastic sleeves I’m going to slip a cut-out newspaper article from Oct. 30, 2020 — and staple them together.
Even the smallest increments of time can have a profound impact on so many other people.
So, how will you spend your next 11 seconds?
God speed, Travis. Skate freely.