Travis Roy’s passing on Oct. 29, at the age of 45, hit me in a deep and profound way. I was, in a word, gutted. The predictable outpouring of support and accolades throughout the hockey world reinforced all that is good about our tight-kit hockey community, emphasizing that Roy was not only a great player, but also a better person.
In the 25 years since he broke his neck, crashing into the boards at Boston University’s Walter Brown Arena just 11 seconds into his first collegiate shift, Roy also became a reluctant role model, and a teacher. What did Roy, a gung-ho forward if there ever was one, teach me about the the particular nuances of hockey, the X’s and O’s, or my own specialty, goaltending? Nothing, to be honest, not if we’re talking strictly about the technical aspects of the game or the position. We never discussed the finer points of shooting, scoring or deciphering a goaltender’s weaknesses.
No, Travis Roy was much bigger than that. What Roy taught me — and confirmed repeatedly — had everything to do with how this ultimate team game can influence our lives, and how our approach to it can have an impact on our performance both on and off the ice. Those lessons apply to every player, including those who often think they’re set apart from the larger team — the goalies.
The first lesson was passion. Roy’s passion for hockey was boundless.
“I could go on forever about how saturated I was in everything about the game,” Roy told me a few years back. “Every scent that I had, as a child. The taste of the sweat around your mouth. I was just so in tune with all of that. There’s nothing better than going to a rink, getting a stick, touching it, flexing it.”
Roy’s dreams became a reality when he donned the scarlet and white of the Boston University Terriers for coach Jack Parker, alongside the likes of Chris Drury.
“You have to have a desire to want to compete, at whatever it is you choose, whether you want to be a doctor, a musician, a mechanic,” Roy said. “But hopefully, at some point in the journey, you find something that you’re passionate about. And then you ask those questions: What’s my potential? How far can I take it? How good can I be? Hockey was that thing for me.”
Roy’s second lesson was purpose. That can be a little more elusive, especially if you’re driven solely by your passion. That was true for Roy. After fate cruelly took hockey from him in 1995, he struggled to come to grips with his new reality, confined to a wheelchair.
Two years after his accident, Roy, with an admirable boost from the Boston business community, launched the nonprofit Travis Roy Foundation, which aims to increase awareness and funding for spinal cord injuries, and provide assistance for those who have suffered similar injuries. In the past 23 years, the foundation has raised and distributed millions for adaptive medical equipment — from wheelchair ramps to voice-activated computers — and for research.
I last spoke to Roy in October 2015. To mark the 20th anniversary of Roy’s accident, the Boston business community (which includes many former collegiate hockey players) and the four major Boston sports teams had raised another $1 million for his foundation. In addition, Roy’s alma mater received another $2.5 million from anonymous donors to fund a rehabilitation science professorship and an office at BU for his foundation.
It was clear that Roy took great pride in his foundation’s work.
“The first thing is that we’re funding research,” he said. “We’re having an impact. I wouldn’t say we’re having a huge impact, by any means, but we’re at a level where we’re funding some of the top researchers in the country, helping move their labs along. And that makes me feels good.
“The second piece is adaptive equipment grants. We’ve provided for over a thousand individual grants. Sometimes I think that’s not a very big number, when I think of the big picture,” he said. “All you have to do is watch one family that got one elevator lift so that their son, daughter, father, can integrate with the family on all levels, both literally and figuratively. Or that one voice-activated computer that allows somebody to go back to school, or access the Internet. It changes lives. It improves lives.”
Furthermore, Roy was hopeful that the science for treating spinal cord injuries was on the brink of dramatic advancements.
“We’re going to make this real,” he said. “This isn’t just about hockey. There are going to be breakthroughs in research. Its not going to just ‘we might,’ or not just ‘we think we can do this.’ It will be ‘we can do this.’ ”
That comment warmed Jack Parker’s heart. Parker resolutely had stood by Roy for the past quarter-century. He recalled a night 20 years ago, shortly after Roy had re-enrolled at BU, when the pair went out to dinner. On the way home, Roy was visibly agitated.
“I asked him what was going on,” said Parker. “And he said, ‘I know I’m never going to have any passion in my life like I did for hockey. I want to be a good son, and graduate from college, and who knows what I’ll do for a living. But I know nothing will ever touch me like hockey did.’ He was so upset about it. So I said, ‘Travis, you don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, I know it.’
“So I told him, ‘There’s an old saying, that God doesn’t shut one door without opening up another,’ ” said Parker. “He said, ‘I don’t believe that.’ And I said, ‘You don’t have to believe it. Believe that I believe it.’ ”
Fast forward to 2015. Parker got a call from an old colleague, Donald “Toot” Cahoon, another BU alum. Cahoon had a friend whose grandson was in Europe when he broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. The young man had just returned home to the Boston area, and Cahoon was asking Parker to reach out to Roy to see if the foundation could provide any assistance. But when Parker called Roy, he discovered that his former player was one step ahead of him.
“Travis says, ‘I already saw him,’ ” said Parker. “I said, ‘How did you know about it?’ And he says, ‘I know about everything.’ ”
Roy explained that officials from Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital would call him whenever they got a young spinal cord patient. The conversation resonated with Parker.
“Just over the phone, I could hear it in his voice, how excited he was to tell me about what he was doing,” said Parker. “But I could also hear how proud he was to be helping these people. I told him that was fabulous. And I said to myself, ‘Well, you found your passion now, Travis. And what you’re doing now has a lot more impact than a hockey player.’ ”
But Roy, who earned a degree in communications from BU, parsed his words more precisely. To him, there was a clear, and sometimes harsh, distinction between “passion” and “purpose.”
“Passion is a lot of fun. Having passion is magical,” he said in 2015. “The last 18 years, slowly, I’ve developed a sense of purpose.”
That purpose, said Roy, was the ability to leverage his misfortune to benefit others.
“It has great value, but it’s not as fun. That’s the key difference,” he said. “It’s work. It’s long hours. But it is rewarding. It’s not rewarding in a way that you had a blast and can’t wait to do it again, like hockey. It’s rewarding in a way where I can look back and see that I have done something with my life that absolutely has been valued, and a sense of accomplishment.”
The luckiest among us are able to find a way to blend passion and purpose, but it’s an exceeding rare combination. Still, these are qualities that this game engenders, and that we should all strive to achieve. That’s what Travis Roy taught me over the past 25 years. His clarity of vision regarding his circumstances, and his honesty, were truly remarkable. “Purpose-driven life” is a catch phrase that we all hear more and more these days, but Roy epitomized exactly what that meant before it became a cliché.
I reached out to Coach Parker when Roy passed, to offer my condolences. He told me that just before Roy died, his sister Tobi whispered in his ear, “Your line’s up next, Trav.” How beautiful is that?
If there’s a heaven, it no doubt welcomed Travis with a clean sheet of ice, strong legs, and a new pair of CCM Super Tacks, freshly sharpened, so he could move freely with passion and purpose. And, of course, a puck and a stick, one with the perfect flex.
For details of the Travis Roy Foundation, visit travisroyfoundation.org. Brion O’Connor is The Goalie Guru columnist for New England Hockey Journal.