A 16-year-old boy’s hockey hopes have been shattered after he was checked from behind and broke his neck.
Doctors told Justin Mendes that three bones in his neck were snapped during the hockey game Friday – an injury so serious that he is lucky he can still walk.
Mendes, who also ran track and field, played soccer and was about to become a ski instructor, will be confined to a brace for the next three months.
He was injured during a minor league playoff game. He was skating toward the puck in the defensive zone, when he sensed an opponent coming.
“There’s a rule you don’t hit people from behind. So I figured the worst, he might pin me up against the boards,” he said.
But witnesses say he was checked from behind and crashed head first into the boards.
A check from behind is considered illegal and is condemned by hockey coaches and players. It poses a serious risk of spinal injuries.
The Greater Toronto Hockey League gave the offending player an automatic six-game suspension and is reviewing whether he should be banned for life. But his team, the Toronto Penguins, went one step further and kicked him out of the club.
“He won’t play for our team ever again and I suspect the family’s decided that it might be a good idea that he won’t play as well,” Penguins coach Paul Cohen said.
However, some members of the Toronto Penguins say the check was accidental and was not done with malicious intent.
During Friday’s game, as Mendes’s mother ran to his side, she realized one of her worst fears was coming true.
“When he was a young boy, he wanted to play hockey every year,” Nancy Kozlowski said. “His dad was saying ‘Let’s sign him up for hockey’… but I was afraid of what could happen one day.”
Mendes spent the weekend in the hospital and has been told he’ll never be able to play contact sports again. That means no hockey, no soccer and future sports scholarships in question.
The news has been difficult to accept.
“It’s not going to be the same is it?” Kozlowski asked her son.
“I don’t think so… I don’t know,” Mendes said.
Mendes was released from hospital Tuesday and will soon begin rehabilitation.
With a report by CTV Toronto’s Colin D’Mello