Branden Carney can walk.
Although not an impressive feat for most, the freshman defensman realizes how close he came to having that simple aspect of his life taken away.
Tragedy struck MSU hockey practice in early November 2011, as Carney lost his footing on a drill and went head first into the dasher boards at Munn Ice Arena. Lying motionless on the ice, Carney needed to be rushed to Sparrow Hospital, where he found out that he had fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae.
Split seconds of doubt on the ice and in the ambulance led to clouded thoughts of not only seeing his hockey career end before it got started, but the ability to live a normal life came into question.
“When it first happened, I was like, ‘Oh crap, what’s going to happen to me?’ kind of thing,” Carney said. “I tried to get up, and I couldn’t. My neck was too painful to move or even think about standing up or moving around at all. I’ve never really been injured in hockey before that badly, and for this to be my first one is like, ‘Oh, God.’”
The news sent a shockwave in the MSU community by drawing immediate comparisons to an injury to 16-year-old Minnesota hockey player Jack Jablonski. In December 2011, Jablonski suffered a check from behind that sent him into the glass, severing his spinal cord at the neck and fracturing two of his vertebrae. Doctors have told Jablonski he’ll never walk again.
All things considered, Carney is incredibly lucky.
For nearly three months since he was released from the hospital, Carney has been wearing a halo brace to stabilize his neck and back. To accommodate a substantial-sized head brace, Carney said he’s cut up nearly a dozen of his shirts to fit around the brace, and he has been sleeping on either a recliner chair or a futon because he’s not able to climb into his bed.
Carney said his teammates and family, namely his father Russ Carney, have helped support him in his recovery by keeping a cautious eye on him and giving him rides to and from his activities.
“Well, any time your kids get hurt, it’s heart-wrenching, but in all the years — he’s been playing hockey since he was four years old — I’ve never seen anybody go head first into the boards,” said Russ, who is the associate head coach for the MSU volleyball team. “It was bad, and we don’t know what the ending is going to be, but he’s still walking. He’s still moving, and that’s the upside of this whole thing.”
After his halo brace was removed Thursday morning and replaced by a smaller neck brace, Carney said there was not any ligament damage — allowing him to rehab and potentially compete and to return to the Spartan lineup someday.
Although the prospects of his return to the ice remain in question, Branden has the support of his team and head coach Tom Anastos to continue his rehab on the road to recovery.
“We’ll deal with whatever is in the best interest of his health,” Anastos said. “If that means he gets a full clearance to compete again someday, that’s awesome, and we’ll give him all of the support to do that. If for some reason it’s not, we’ll deal with that at that time.”
Once he is cleared to play, Branden will be chomping at the bit to return to the team. But he knows how lucky he is for the opportunity at a second chance.
“I feel really blessed that I’m still able to get around and come up here and be with the boys again,” Branden said. “I think about it every day that it could have been a lot worse than what it is. I wouldn’t be here right now if I weren’t so lucky, you could say.”