Although the 2013-14 Ferris hockey season ended short of a Frozen Four bid, things have turned around for one Bulldog hockey player.
Junior defenseman Simon Denis suffered a season-ending neck injury while playing in a road game at Alabama-Huntsville on November 1, 2013.
“When I went to retrieve it [the puck], I kind of got pushed a little bit,” Denis said. “My feet came from underneath me, and their guy on the follow-through fell over me and landed right on the back of my head and drove my neck straight down.”
Denis dropped to the ice and became completely immobile. Later that night, Denis was told he had fractured his C5 and C6 vertebrae and tore ligaments around the two vertebrae on the play, an injury that not only can paralyze people, but it can also be fatal.
Although Denis recalls knowing it was a neck injury lying on the ice, he didn’t know the severity.
“Right away I knew that it was my neck, [but] I didn’t know what was wrong with it,” Denis said.
When Denis reached the hospital, he remained hopeful that he wouldn’t be out of the lineup for long.
“I was asking the doctor if I could play in a couple weeks or a month or something like that,” Denis said. “The doctor didn’t really say anything about hockey at that point, he just said I was lucky not to be paralyzed.”
The injury not only affected Denis and the Bulldogs physically, but Denis also admitted it emotionally took a toll on him.
“The first month or two was extremely tough,” Denis said. “I kind of felt like I was putting on a fake smile. I didn’t really feel like I was all there.”
On March 25, Denis was cleared to skate for the first time in 144 days.
“It’s awesome to see the excitement on his face,” Ferris hockey head coach Bob Daniels said. “For the first time he skated in a couple of drills with us today, which was really cool.”
In Daniels’ eyes, Denis embodied the adage that bad things can happen to good people.
“There couldn’t have been a better kid for that to happen to,” Daniels said. “His attitude’s been so positive.”
On practice days, he could be seen in his neck brace, handling plastic hockey pucks with his stick off the rink. Every few moments or so, he would stare up at the ice, watching his able-bodied teammates crash into each other while he could only look on.
While recovering, Denis had support from another Ferris athlete who had suffered a season-ending injury.
Women’s soccer junior midfielder Stephanie Garland, whom Denis is dating, tore her ACL and lost the end of her junior season a month before Denis fractured the vertebrae in his neck.
“It was tough right at the beginning when she got hurt,” Denis said. “Because I felt so bad for her, after all the hard work she had put in. Obviously not being able to be there [with her] sucked.”
The injury, while ending his season, gave Denis time to spend with his girlfriend.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Denis said. “We got the chance to be closer.”
Garland had her surgery a day before Ferris played their first game.
“It definitely helped to have someone who really understood what was going on,” Garland said. “Whenever he was having a rough day, I tried to stay positive, and he did the same for me when I was down.”
With the doctors clearing him to skate, Denis now feels like he has something to give back to the Ferris hockey fans.
“All the support I ever got, it was greater than I ever expected,” Denis said. “I owe so much to those people for their prayers and their thoughts, but I feel like if I work hard enough and get back out there on the ice, that’s kind of my way of paying them back, showing how hard I can work.”
The injury occurred during the sixth game of the 43-game season, and the NCAA granted Denis a medical redshirt, allowing him an extra year of athletic eligibility, during which Denis plans to continue his education.
“I’m still going to graduate with my class (May 2015),” Denis said. “That fifth year I believe I’m going to do my master’s in business.”