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Travis Roy, Who Inspired Millions After a Hockey Tragedy, Dies at 45

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November 18, 2020

Travis Roy, Who Inspired Millions After a Hockey Tragedy, Dies at 45

After an awkward fall 11 seconds into his first Boston University game left him a quadriplegic, he dedicated his life to advocacy for similarly disabled people.

Travis Roy at a Wiffle ball tournament
Travis Roy at a Wiffle ball tournament for his charitable foundation in Essex, Vt.Credit...Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe, via Getty Images

By Azi Paybarah
Oct. 30, 2020

Travis Roy, who suffered a paralyzing injury just 11 seconds into his first hockey game for Boston University in 1995 and, as a philanthropist and motivational speaker, was revered by the sports world as an example of determination and courage, died on Thursday in a hospital outside Burlington, Vt. He was 45.

The cause was complications of surgery he needed after two and a half decades of being in a wheelchair, Keith VanOrden, his brother-in-law, said.

In the opening seconds of a televised college hockey game on Oct. 20, 1995, Roy, a forward, skated in to body-check an opposing defenseman, crashed into the boards and fell to the ice.

“It was as if my head had become disengaged from my body,” he recalled in a book, “Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage & Triumph,” written with E.M. Swift. “I was turning the key in the ignition on a cold winter morning, and the battery was completely dead. Not a spark. Just click, and nothing. And right away it passed through my mind I was probably paralyzed.”

He had shattered his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. The injury left Roy a quadriplegic. Eventually he regained some movement in his right arm, which he used to work the joystick on his wheelchair.

College hockey is held in awe in Boston; its athletes are worshiped and its fallen participants mourned. Shortly after Roy’s accident, more than 200 special church Masses and prayer services were held in his honor, according to his father, Lee.

That reverence for Roy grew as he gave motivational speeches and raised money to help those with spinal injuries and to fund research.
Travis Roy at his graduation
The Travis Roy Foundation, established in 1996 to support people with spinal cord injuries, has given nearly $5 million in research grants and helped more than 2,100 quadriplegics and paraplegics, according to its website.

Travis Roy was born on April 17, 1975, in Yarmouth, Maine, to Brenda and Lee Roy. His father, who had been a standout hockey player at the University of Vermont, manages several sports arenas. By the mid-1990s, Travis Roy had become one of the country’s top college hockey recruits.

The Boston University team he joined was a powerhouse. It included four players who went on to long National Hockey League careers: Chris Drury, Mike Grier, Jay Pandolfo and Shawn Bates.

Drury, a sophomore on the team, was on the ice when Roy crashed into the boards, in a game against North Dakota. “I was just 10 feet away when it happened,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006. “It was chilling.”

“That could have been me,” he added. “And the way Travis had dealt with this tragedy is an inspiration to me.”

Now the assistant general manager for the New York Rangers, Drury went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche and an Olympic silver medal with the United States Olympic Hockey team. He remained close with Roy. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Travis Roy,” he said.

After Drury won the Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, he took it to Boston, where Roy lived. “It was the first time I had ever seen the Stanley Cup,” Roy said at the time. “It was a thrill.”

Kevin Shattenkirk, an N.H.L. veteran now with the Anaheim Ducks, played three seasons for Boston University, where Roy was a source of inspiration.

“Travis was someone that any B.U. hockey player knew not because of his accident but because of how present he was within the program,” Shattenkirk said in a text message on Thursday. “I always admired how he never let anyone feel sorry for him. He inspired me and every person that ever met him, and the hockey world will remember him forever.”

In addition to his father, Roy is survived by his mother and a sister, Tobi VanOrden.

Roy’s determination was evident shortly after his accident. Keith VanOrden recalled “watching him graduate in four years without being able to pick up a highlighter or take notes in class.”

That, he said, “pales in comparison to what he did as a motivational speaker.”

“Sometimes in life you choose your challenges, other times the challenges choose you,” Roy would say, according to VanOrden. “And it’s what you do in the face of those challenges that defines who you are and what you’ll become.”

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