It takes a lot to slow down a hockey player and keep him off the ice. Block a puck with your leg? Finish your shift, get it taped up and get back on the ice. Take a shot in the face? Again, finish your shift, get stitched up and get back over the boards.
Every so often, however, hockey offers a cruel reminder that even the toughest of tough guys are not invincible. That was the case for Matt Brown, whose life was changed forever thanks solely to the game he loved.
Of course, Brown hasn’t been one to sulk, even as a 2010 injury suffered in a game as a Norwood High School hockey player has left him paralyzed from the chest down and confined to a wheelchair — at least for now.
Instead, Brown goes about his rehab and his recovery with a smile on his face.
The 17-year-old continues to scratch and claw in his rehab, doing everything he can to get better. He’s almost two years removed from the injury, and he’s still doing all he can to beat the odds.
He works out three times a week for two hours a day (down from three now that school has started) at Journey Forward, a rehabilitation center in Canton, Mass., specializing in spinal-cord injuries. It’s tough work, but Brown is seeing the results of his hard work pay off a little at a time.
“It’s going good,” he says of the process. “Slow but sure.”
And while the ability to play the game he loves has been taken from him, Brown has actually seized the opportunity that rehab has given him to feel like an athlete once again.
“I’m back in a gym, just like I was training in the offseason for hockey season. That drive, kind of goes both ways, it’s just like being back in a gym. Two hours a day, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. By Friday at 4 o’clock, I’m dead-dog tired. So tired. But it’s what I gotta do.”
Brown’s not doing it alone, of course. He praises Journey Forward for all of the work they do helping him get to where he wants to be, something he can’t say enough about.
“Journey Forward is an amazing place,” he beams with a huge smile. “I can’t talk enough about it. It’s a special place.”
“Journey Forward really takes the holistic approach,” Matt’s mother, Susan, says. “He rides the bike with the stim to make his muscles move. They have him standing in a standing frame. They get him on a gate trainer to simulate walking and move his arms. … A traditional physical therapy would be more occupational, looking only at the muscle groups that are coming back, Journey Forward takes the approach that ‘We’ll make those come back.'”
The additional support system has been there the entire time, and it remains there. He, of course, has his family, he has his friends who have stood by his side and insist they will continue to be there until he hits the ice again.
And then, he has his other friends — the Boston Bruins.
The pain and suffering of Brown’s ordeal has been eased through the years by a number of high-profile members of the hockey community.
Not longer after his injury, Brown was sent to Atlanta for treatment. When the Bruins were in Atlanta for a game with the Thrashers, Patrice Bergeron dropped by to see him. Brown has also become close with Andrew Ference. For most teenaged hockey fans, these players would be idols, heroes even. For Matt Brown, the B’s are his friends.
“To call some of the Boston Bruins my friends,” he says, “is something not many people can do.”
They are friendships that have benefited Brown in the long run, and not just through signed jerseys and sticks — although he’s got plenty of those, as well. Actually, seeing the B’s succeed is something that Brown has been able to draw motivation out of and use toward his own battle.
“With them winning, being successful, that’s just more drive to keep me going,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the season. That’s what keeps me going because it’s my favorite sport.
“Once a hockey player, always a hockey player.”
And when the Bruins finally brought the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the first time in almost four full decades, Brown was there waiting. Unsurprisingly, he was around the Cup as much as some of the B’s. He was there for the Stanley Cup parade. He was on hand when the B’s brought the Cup to their annual golf tournament. He was able to share time with it and Ference on more than one occasion, including a dinner in the North End over Labor Day weekend.
In fact, Brown has become so close with the Bruins, and in turn, the Stanley Cup, he and sports’ most recognizable trophy are on a first-name basis.
“Summer went out with a bang,” Brown says of the dinner party with the Cup. “We got to spend the last night of summer eating dinner right next to Stanley. It was perfect. Just perfect.”
That respect and admiration that Brown has for the B’s, though, goes both ways. When Bergeron met with Brown down in Atlanta a few years back, he, like anyone else who gets the opportunity to meet the resilient teenager, could only be impressed and inspired by his will to persevere.
“I just felt like he was up-spirit and he just seemed like a great kid,” Bergeron told the Bruins’ website at the time of his visit. “Always smiling. I just hope everything keeps getting better like he’s been saying. Staying positive and staying patient is the main key. It’s what it is. I’ve been through it and I know it’s gonna get better. He’s a great kid.”
Words like those, however, have become commonplace when directed at Brown. That’s something he says he tries not to get carried away with. He’ll leave that for Mom and Dad.
“I try not to let it get to my head, because my head will blow up, but that’s cool,” he says of the admiration he draws so often from professional athletes and the like. “I think that’s something that my mother and father get, not jealous … but I talk to my dad and he still gets jealous when we’re out on the town and someone comes up and starts talking to me.”
Brown’s love for sports doesn’t end with just hockey and the Bruins. He follows New England sports with the fervor and passion of any other diehard. He thinks it’s a slam dunk that the Bruins will repeat this season as Cup champs, but the same can’t be said for the Red Sox. He, like so many other other Sox fans, is “petrified” about them right now.
No worries, though, as Brown, someone who would be totally justified to feel slighted by sports, knows he must count his lucky stars at night.
“I am spoiled,” he says of the embarrassment of riches that has been Boston sports in the last decade. “I am spoiled.”
Away from sports, things have already gotten better for Matt Brown. He’s not out of the woods yet, but with his continued hard work (a given) and maybe a lucky bounce of the puck, things will no doubt continue to get better.
After all, he’s got a shift to finish. Once a hockey player, always a hockey player, right?
The Second Annual Matt Brown Gala — Family, Friends, Community: Our Journey Together will take place on Saturday, Sept. 24, at the home of the Stanley Cup champions, TD Garden in Boston. For more information, visit MattBrownNumber3.org or click here. Tickets will be available at the door.