Duffy Fallon made Breck’s varsity hockey team two years ago as a sophomore. As one of four fourth-line forwards, he yearned to make the cut for a squad that would compete in the state high school tournament.
On Wednesday, Breck will face Marshall at the Xcel Energy Center in the first round of the tourney, and on Sunday Fallon, now a senior, glided through an intense practice, but he’s no longer skating for Breck. He’s an assistant coach of the Minnesota Northern sled hockey team, working with disabled athletes.
His is a tale of our times transformed into a tale for all times: of concussion ignorance and awareness, of the good that people so often do, and of the perspective gained when one’s problem is dwarfed by others’.
“They’ve allowed Duffy to remain in hockey, safely, and to have a richness in his life that he wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Duffy’s father, Pat, the Minneapolis advertising guru. “This is an optimistic story.”
Pat was sitting in the stands a little more than two years ago when an opposing player drove Duffy into the boards. Duffy doesn’t remember the third period, even though he scored a goal. After the game, he vomited incessantly.
The emergency room doctor put him in a neck brace and told him to go home and rest. He could do little other than sit in his bedroom with the lights off, so Pat set up an appointment with the Gillette Children’s brain trauma center.
“The first thing they said to him was, ‘Do you realize you could have died?’ ’’ Pat said. “That started the nightmare.”
Duffy experienced light sensitivity, insomnia, irritability, slurred speech, a loss of balance, headaches and memory loss. For a week, he had trouble leaving his room. An eager and active teenager who loves writing had trouble putting pen to paper or sitting in a class with bright lights.
“In the impact testing, my scores were horrendous,” Duffy said.
“You were roughly the same as an ashtray,” Pat said.
After eight frustrating months, the Fallons switched to the Hennepin County Medical Center.
“We should have been there from the beginning,” Pat said.
Dr. Sarah Rockswold determined Duffy had suffered a concussion in a hockey game in the weeks before the hit that changed his life, but she prefers the term “mild traumatic brain injury.”
“It’s easy for athletes and other people to shrug off having three concussions,” she said. “It’s not so easy to say, ‘I had three brain injuries.’ We find that 85 percent or so of people recover from their first mild brain injury, and there are 15 percent who go on like Duffy. He had two brain injuries. As the number of brain injuries go up the more likely you are to have problems.”
The Fallons credit Dr. Rockswold and HCMC with helping Duffy recover. After 239 appointments over two years, the Fallons estimate him to be at about 90 percent of his former capabilities. He never will play hockey again.
Duffy misses the game, though. One day Pat ran into Larry Hendrickson, the legendary high school hockey coach and father of Darby, the former Gopher and Wild player who is a Wild assistant coach.
Larry runs the Hendrickson Foundation, which supports sled hockey for the disabled. Duffy now works as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Northern team that will play in a national tournament in Philadelphia this month.
“This is the most amazing group of people I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” Duffy said.
The sleds are bucket seats on rails above two skate blades. Players carry two short hockey sticks that also serve as ski poles.
“They’ll drop the gloves,” said Chris Gustafson, the volunteer head coach of the Northern. “These people have all had bad things happen to them, but they come together to make something good happen on the ice. It’s inspiring. Even on your worst day, their worst day was worse than yours, and here they are. You’ve got Iraq War guys and kids who had cancer, guys who were in car accidents.”
Some players and parents drive from Duluth just for practice. Some players require 45 minutes to strap on their legs and climb into the bucket.
Greta Nelson is the mother of two sled hockey players, Naomi, 15, and Nicklas, 14. Naomi is fully-limbed, but cancer and cancer treatments left her with weakened joints. Nicklas was born with a rare syndrome that led to him choosing, at 8, to have his legs amputated.
A physical therapist at Gillette showed Greta an article about sled hockey.
“We were like, ‘What?’ ’’ Greta said. “Neither of my kids had been able to be on a hockey team or be in team sports. It’s so nice for them to belong to something. There are a lot of adaptive sports, but it’s extra cool in Minnesota for them to be a part of hockey.”
“These are real athletes, real hockey players,” said Mike Seegar, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Now he coaches youth sled hockey and plays for the Northern. “The hits are as violent as NHL hits. The sad thing is not many people know this is available to disabled people.”
Hendrickson wants to change that. Duffy is helping, working with the foundation’s website, using his business and social media expertise to spread the word.
Hendrickson has seen all Minnesota hockey has to offer. He’s won state titles, worked with the Herb Brooks Foundation, worked with J.P. Parise at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, and befriended every hockey big shot in the state.
“I just love these people,” Hendrickson said. “I had colon cancer. I get around these people and I feel like, ‘That’s all I had?’ Chris is great with them, and so is Duffy. His father came to a practice and you could see the people lighting up when Duffy was around. I saw a tear on his father’s cheek.”
“I’ve grown a lot through this,” Duffy said.
“He has,” Pat said. “We’ve found that 90 percent of Duffy is pretty damn good.”
Editor’s note: For more information on sled hockey or to donate please visit HendricksonFoundation.com and mnsledhockey.org.