A onetime standout Twin Cities high school hockey player was left paralyzed below the shoulders after falling at full speed and flying headfirst into the boards during a junior game in suburban Chicago while chasing his dream of a spot on a college roster.
Defenseman Matt Olson, 20, who led Totino-Grace High School of Fridley to the state tournament in 2014 and graduated as the program’s iron man, was hurt in a home game for the Chicago Cougars of the U.S. Premier Hockey League (USPHL) vs. the Illiana Blackbirds of northwest Indiana.
Olson, whose family is from Isanti, caught one of his skate blades in a rut on the ice Sunday while racing for a puck behind his team’s net at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates in the final regular-season game, a Cougars team official said Wednesday.
“He has no movement in any of his extremities below his shoulders,” said Mike Tompkins, Cougars business manager, moments after receiving an update from Advocate Lutheran Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., where Olson is being treated.
Olson is receiving mechanical assistance in order to breathe and communicating through eye movement, but “he’s conscious and never lost consciousness from the time of the injury,” Tompkins said.
Olson’s mother, Sue, explained on a CaringBridge Web page that “this was a very serious spinal injury that resulted in permanent damage. … The family appreciates all the prayers and well wishes.”
Assistant Coach Justin Maciuk said Olson brushed against an opponent just ahead of him about halfway into the first period and then lost his balance. The family’s CaringBridge report emphasized that Olson’s injury “was not the result of physical contact from any player.”
An ambulance quickly arrived and took Olson to Advocate Lutheran. He underwent surgery the next day to stabilize his spine, a follow-up CaringBridge posting Tuesday reported. “The surgery went well, and Matt is doing great. … Matt is smiling,” the posting read.
A statement from the family Wednesday afternoon said “Matt was injured participating in the sport he loves. We are confident Matt will continue to bring the same work ethic to his recovery that has made him successful on and off the ice.”
Tompkins said he admires Olson for more than just his athletic ability.
“From Day 1, Matt has been a leader on this team, from Day 1 a leader in the locker room, on the ice and on the bus. We’ve done nine-plus community service projects, and Matt volunteered for every single one of them.”
Now it’s time, Tompkins added, that “we need to be here for the Olson family. This is a lifelong journey the family is on.”
A fundraising effort was started at www.gofundme.com/mattolson-3 to help the family with expenses, and it topped $30,000 by Wednesday evening.
Joe Dibble, Cougars team owner and general manager, said he was watching the game online, “and seeing it there, you didn’t get the full extent of it. I rewound and watched it again, but I could never do that again. It made me sick to my stomach.”
Social media has kept up a steady surge of get-well wishes and prayers for Olson, many using #MO3 (his initials and jersey number) as a rallying point on Twitter.
Jack Jablonski, the Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School hockey player who remains paralyzed from a check in a junior varsity game in December 2011, was among those tweeting support for Olson. Some members of the Chicago Wolf Pack youth hockey program in the Cougars’ home city have “MO3 Matt Olson” stickers on their helmets.
In his four seasons at Totino-Grace, Olson recorded 13 goals and 30 assists in 114 games, a school record for durability. He was captain his senior year, when the Eagles made it to the Class A state tournament and won the consolation bracket.
Totino-Grave had Olson's jersey hanging behind its bench in Wednesday's 6-5 win over No. 4 Mahtomedi in its section semifinal game in Roseville.
Before Wednesday's win, Totino-Grace head coach Mark Loahr called a victory “the best thing we can do."
“Matt never quit and always gave his best," Loahr said. "… Too many people quit when things get difficult or don’t give their best. Matt was never like that.”
The Cougars and other members of the USPHL provide athletes who have played high school-age hockey with an opportunity to improve their chances of skating in college. The Cougars compete in a conference of the USPHL that includes teams from Minnesota in Forest Lake, Blaine, Vadnais Heights and Owatonna.
Olson was getting some recruiting attention from the Division III, the non-scholarship level of college hockey, Dibble said.
“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind he was going to be a college hockey player,” Dibble said. “He’s still going to touch many people, but just in a different way.”
After a lengthy delay following Olson’s injury, Sunday’s game ended with Illiana winning, 6-5. Olson scored the first goal for the Cougars, his 12th of the season.