On Athletes Dying Young

Hockey season is in full gear. Last night, my oldest son and I watched my younger son’s high school varsity team play in what turned into a lively hockey game between two competitive teams. However, before the game started, the rink fell into somber silence. 

Earlier this week, a young local high school hockey player from a nearby town succumbed to a fluke injury he received while playing his beloved sport. My son’s team, like most other hockey teams in the state, were honoring this young man with a moment of silence and a bent knee on center ice at the beginning of their game. 

Moments of silence, wearing stickers on helmets, putting hockey sticks outside on front steps – they are traditions in the youth hockey community. Small signs of unity that signal that players and their families have each other’s backs, despite what might happen when play starts on the ice. While my family and I are willing participants, honestly, I would be very happy to never have to attach another sticker to another player’s helmet again. 

When my younger son started playing developmental hockey, he had a friend on his team who was sweet and kind. The type of kid that always smiled and just loved to play the sport. One day, in the middle of the season, this boy died. It turned out that he had AVM Arteriovenous Malformation, which had gone undetected. 

My son, who was 8 years old at the time, wanted to go to the wake. I’ll never forget the way that line snaked around the funeral home, packed with friends and people from the community, including other young players in the local hockey club. In the middle of the long wait, I remember the teenagers from the local high school hockey team assembled on the front lawn, wearing wrinkled khaki pants, and ties underneath their hockey jerseys. To their credit, those young men paid their respects to the child’s parents, honoring the boy who would never have the chance to play on his high school hockey team. 

Why do I write about this now? As parents, we have invested a part of our souls into our children, their teammates, and yes, even the opposing teams. We drive our children all over the state, enduring broken fingernails and freezing rinks. We invest an insane amount of money into gear and ice time and tournaments. We find fraternity in complaining about the other team’s obnoxious parents and awful referee calls. All of this we do in the hopes that our children will find some happiness playing the game. 

So when there is an unexpected death – especially when it happens on the ice – there is a special horrible kind of tragedy. It’s as if the game clock, ticking away the minutes and seconds looms over all of us, reminding all of us that there is only so much time left to play the game. 

A.E. Housman says that the athlete who dies young is a “smart lad, to slip betimes away/ From fields where glory does not stay.” Housman was never a parent. He never tied his child’s skates or drove to Massachusetts in the middle of a snow storm with a kid in the back seat worried that he was going to miss the game. The sad truth is, there is no glory in a child, athlete or otherwise, who dies young. It’s just simple – aching – heartbreak. 

To sign a petition to get neck guards mandatory in NCAA and USA hockey visit: https://www.change.org/p/hockey-neck-guards-mandatory-to-play-hockey?recruiter=1048448225&utm_campaign=signature_receipt&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=share_petition 

Visit https://www.collingwhitmore.org/our-impact to donate to AVM Research in Collin’s name. 

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