March 2, 2013

From NEHJ: Heart of a lion

By Dan Guttenplan

Through hard work and perseverance, Brandon Spring has earned his keep with the Chelmsford High varsity team. (Photo: Amanda Cote)

Brandon Spring is keenly aware that hockey is a game of numbers. Goals, assists, penalty minutes, plus-minus, ice time. The numbers always have been stacked against Spring, who loves hockey more than any other sport.

Spring, a 17-year-old Chelmsford High (Mass.) senior, was diagnosed at birth with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that affects 1 in 25,000 people. Spring’s numbers — 4-foot-1, 93 pounds — are considered too small for most levels of hockey, certainly varsity high school hockey in Massachusetts.

At least that’s what Spring’s mother always believed.

“As a mother, I’ve always been nervous,” Marita Spring says. “Since he started on skates, in Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees, each level I kept saying, ‘He can’t keep playing. He can’t go to the next level.’ ”

Brandon never felt that way. He’s wanted to play hockey since he first stood on skates. Sure, he knew something was different about him. He couldn’t find equipment that fit comfortably. His muscles were weaker than most of the kids his age.

But Brandon stuck with it because he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Greg Spring was a varsity player at Chelmsford High for three years before playing one season at New England College. He put his son on skates at the age of 3 and watched Brandon’s desire grow with each team he didn’t make along the way.

Brandon Spring is now a senior varsity hockey player at Chelmsford High.

“There have been times in my life that I’ve been frustrated,” Brandon says. “I worked twice as hard to keep up with kids my age. The kids I’m playing with on varsity now, those are the kids I wish I was playing with when I was younger.”

This season, Spring made appearances in five of Chelmsford’s games, typically in the closing minutes of lopsided contests. He practiced every day with the varsity, receiving no special treatment from coach Mike McGrath. Oftentimes after Spring appeared late in games, referees would seek out McGrath to commend him for playing the smallest player on any varsity roster in Massachusetts.

“Obviously, when we get him in, it makes everything more fun,” McGrath says. “The kids love it. The refs come up and say, ‘This is a great thing for high school hockey.’ Sometimes opposing coaches think we’re trying to show them up, but that’s a handful of people.”

Spring’s height isn’t his only distinguishing characteristic on the ice. His first skates were wedged on the outside to account for his bowed legs. Because of his size, he skates far slower than anyone else in a varsity game, although his hands and his shot are above average, according to McGrath.

“Speed has always been a huge issue for me,” Spring says. “I could really tell the difference from Pee Wees. Even when we started hitting, I never worried about getting hit. Because I’m so small, it’s usually a penalty if someone hits me. I know the mental side of the game, I know the timing, but I’m missing speed on every shift.”

For that reason, Spring played on lower-level teams all through his time in the Chelmsford Hockey Association. When he got to high school as a freshman, he was assigned to the junior varsity ‘B’ team thanks to an arrangement his father made with his former high school coach, Jack Fletcher, then the athletic director at Chelmsford High. Brandon would serve as the team manager for the varsity football and hockey teams in exchange for getting a spot on a JV team.

“He was supposed to be on the bench at hockey games,” Greg Spring says. “When players stood up, he couldn’t see anything, of course. But it came to fruition this year where he got an honorary position on the team. He’s the 13th forward.”

Brandon Spring, shown above with his mom and dad at Senior Night, has been a valuable contributor to the Chelmsford High varsity. (Photo: Amanda Cote)

McGrath met with Brandon prior to the season to set expectations. He explained that Brandon would not have a regular shift, but he’d be expected to practice every day and maintain a positive attitude. McGrath says Spring has more than upheld his end of the bargain.

“We talked about the things he could do, and I thought it would be inspirational for him to stick around with us,” McGrath says. “Obviously he has limitations on what he can do. He doesn’t use those deficiencies as an excuse. It brings kids back to reality. Here’s a guy who goes out and practices every day with us, and he toughs it out.”

Of course, there are instances in which Spring’s situation is different. For instance, he drives a truck that has been modified so that the pedals extend to the level of his feet. His parents worry about different things than other parents — like whether a low-flying slap shot might hit their son in the face. Brandon also has been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, and although he has been accepted to Castleton State College, Curry College and a couple other small schools, his parents are urging him to attend Middlesex Community College next year to bide time to mature and learn to live independently.

Like any other person born with a disability, Spring also encounters moments when life doesn’t seem fair. For instance, his 12-year-old brother, Cody, is at the top of his age group among youth hockey players. He plays for the Pro Ambition Panthers in Nashua and already is several inches taller than Brandon.

“Watching my brother play in tournaments now — he’ll go down to New York City — I don’t even want to go,” Spring says. “It’s too emotional. It’s everything I wanted. It sounds like he might make the varsity team his freshman year, and it makes me frustrated. I’m happy for him, but I wanted to be that kid.”

Brandon is aware that, without a positive attitude, he wouldn’t be a member of a varsity team. His interactions with teammates off the ice and the example he sets for others are his greatest contributions to the team. His father always has encouraged him to “be a cheerleader,” Brandon says. Greg Spring is proud of the way his son has grown on the inside.

“If he was a normal size, maybe he doesn’t have the same coordination, the same heart, the same focus,” Greg Spring says. “He has an unbelievable drive. He wants to go into sports management, and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll do it.”

Brandon might not be done with hockey after high school. He plans to eventually serve as a team manager for whichever college he ends up attending. And who would bet against him eventually turning that opportunity into some ice time?

In regards to taking on a leadership role for the Chelmsford hockey team this season, Brandon says, “I’ve never been a leader. I don’t want that.”

Brandon’s parents attend the Little People of America National Convention every year, and they have yet to hear about another dwarf playing hockey beyond the Pee Wee level. Whether Brandon knows it or not, he is leading this charge.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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