January 26, 2011

From NEHJ: BC High defenseman lends helping hand

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brendan O’Malley still remembers the phone call.

He still recalls the conversation from last winter, the wireless slap shot into the stomach that told him his friend from childhood, Norwood High School sophomore Matt Brown, had crashed into the boards during a high school game against Weymouth and broken two cervical vertebrae, an injury that’s left him paralyzed.

“I came home from a practice or game, and it was one of my good friends,” said O’Malley, now a senior defenseman at Boston College High School. “He said, ‘Did you hear what happened with Brownie?’ When I heard, my heart just sank.”

Brown and O’Malley had grown up together in Norwood, playing youth hockey through their elementary- and middle-school years. They would eventually drift but would still see each other occasionally after O’Malley went off to BC High.

“I found myself always playing pond hockey with him and meeting up at random rinks throughout the area,” O’Malley said.

A year later, Brown was at Norwood and O’Malley was starting to make his mark with a rebuilding BC High varsity, a proud program that has claimed Super 8 titles in four of the previous 15 seasons, most recently the back-to-back jobs in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

“His role has increased every year,” said BC High coach John Flaherty (South Boston, Mass.), a longtime assistant who succeeded Joe McCabe as head coach this winter. “Sophomore year, he was learning the ropes. Last year, he played a little bit more. This year, he’s an assistant captain, and we expect a lot from him.”

Captains are expected to lead. And O’Malley did exactly that last winter after learning about his old Norwood’s friend’s tragedy.

He set up a raffle, with the money raised going to Brown and his family. He talked to BC High athletic director Jon Bartlett about donating the proceeds from a game to them. Wristbands were distributed and worn in tribute. Though it didn’t seem like enough, it was something.

“It was a probably a couple days after that call that I found out he was paralyzed,” O’Malley said. “That’s every hockey player’s and every hockey parent’s worst nightmare.

“I saw the whole hockey community pulling together, doing fund-raising and things like that. BC High knew what was going on but hadn’t really taken action. I knew as his friend I had to do something important.”

At BC High, a Jesuit Catholic High School, students are required to perform a number of hours of community service, a commitment that grows in duration each year they attend.

Last year, through BC High’s campus ministry, O’Malley and other students made a trip to Camden, N.J., to assist in homeless shelters. As a sophomore, he and his teammates spent their Sundays in South Boston teaching skating and life lessons to local youth players.

“The mothers loved it,” Flaherty said, “because it was a positive male role model that some may not have been exposed to.”

When details of Brown’s condition and difficult road ahead became known, O’Malley approached Flaherty and asked him if he could bring his fund-raising idea to McCabe, then the head coach.

“It wouldn’t shock me if Brendan O’Malley did that and didn’t know Matt Brown,” Flaherty said. “He’s the type of quality kid who’ll do something for someone even if he doesn’t know him.”

O’Malley has kept his role in the tragedy — and Brown’s recovery — in perspective. It’s what hockey players are best at. From a young age, they’re taught, or should be taught, the importance and necessity of every player doing a job, from the sniper who’s counted on for 30 goals to the fourth-line energy guy.

Since Brown returned home in early May from the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a top rehabilitation hospital for spinal-cord patients, there have been positive signs but also lots of work for him and his family, including physical therapy at Journey Forward in Canton, Mass. But the support Brown has received has been welcomed — from donations and fund-raisers, to meeting Red Sox and Bruins players, to military well-wishers from across the globe.

And O’Malley plans to keep contributing in his own way: writing a letter to Brown every couple of weeks, keeping him in his thoughts and prayers, and maybe asking his friend to come out to a BC High game.

The season was only two games old as New England Hockey Journal went to press, but there are some encouraging signs for the Eagles. Both games, against Acton-Boxboro and Springfield Cathedral, were 2-1 wins. Junior Matt Sullivan — the son of New York Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan (Marshfield, Mass.), the former Bruins’ bench boss — has three of those goals.  

On a team with nine seniors — but also 13 freshmen and sophomores — leadership will be key, not just from captain Michael Cashman, and assistants O’Malley and Jack Buckley, but also from seniors such as Terence Durkin, Jake Tenaglia, Andrew White and Sean Talbot.

“(Flaherty) has got all his plans, and we can see everything coming together,” said the 6-foot-1 O’Malley, a self-described stay-at-home type of defenseman. “I can tell it’s going to be a good year.”

O’Malley said he still harbors outside hopes of landing with a Division 1 college program but has received more interest from the Division 3 level. His Southeast team won a gold medal at the Bay State Games last summer, and he was chosen to participate in the Hockey Night in Boston showcase.

He’s also spent the past five years working with certified trainer Scott Parmentier, the former University of Maine star.

“He’s a real focused kid,” Parmentier said.

“His work ethic, you couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s probably the model for what you want for that level of athlete.”

On the ice and off.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com