'A long road': Youth hockey player returns to Delaware after devastating injury
Signs dotted the roadway along Old North Road outside Caesar Rodney High School. They read "87 Strong" and "Welcome Home Brian."
Six Delaware State Police cruisers lined the road, and so did a fire truck with a big American flag waving in the whipping wind Friday afternoon as the minivan carrying 17-year-old Brian Page Jr., led by another fire truck and police cruiser, turned right onto Old North Road.
Nearly five months since a hit in a hockey game left Page paralyzed and dashed his dreams of one day making the National Hockey League, he was heading home – and dozens of people from the community, including his high school lacrosse teammates, were there to welcome him.
"The community, as you see, has just been rock solid," said Brian's mother, Joan. "Every time there’s been a need, you put it out there and somebody, one, two, 10 people jump in. And we know that will continue now that we’re home.
"It’s a huge day. It’s not the end. We still have a long road."
A part of that road began Friday in Philadelphia, where Brian had been staying as he rehabilitates from his Nov. 15 injury, and took him to his Magnolia home. He'll continue making that drive a few days a week but will finally be able to be at home.
Friday was just another part of the journey, Joan Page said.
"The last five months have been a rollercoaster," she said. "Ups, downs, twisties, turns, all of the above. A lot, a lot of ups, though. He’s really, really positive. His spirits are phenomenal, and he’s gone night and day from day one to here."
The injury happened in Trenton. Brian, playing for the Little Flyers, a Delaware County, Pennsylvania-based elite youth team, skated the puck into the offensive zone during a game and was hit by an opposing player. It was during that hit or when Brian hit the ice that he broke two vertebrae and did damage to two others. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
Brian went through four surgeries at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, two of which to stabilize his neck and spine. He was there for two weeks before being transferred to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
During his stay at Jefferson, he was on a ventilator and needed a feeding tube to eat. He wasn't able to lift his head.
A talented hockey player who had signed to play next season in one of the top junior hockey leagues in the country, Brian's dreams of earning a Division I college hockey scholarship were gone. So, too, were his dreams of following in his favorite hockey player's footsteps, the one whose number he wears, Sidney Crosby.
"When it happened, as a mom, the heartstrings definitely pull," said Amy Zook, a family friend. "But that’s when the moms come together and we have our squad of people, squad of moms who just pulled in and immediately jumped in to help where we could."
The Delaware and hockey communities here regionally and around the country have stepped up in a major way in the months since. A Facebook page, Brian Page #87Strong, has more than 6,000 followers and keeps those interested updated on Brian's rehabilitation.
A GoFundMe for the Pages has raised more than $325,000 to date. That money, according to the fundraising page, was used for medical expenses not covered by insurance, a new van and the major construction at the family's home to make it wheelchair-accessible.
"The house is ready," Joan Page said. "His space is ready. He’s getting a lot more abilities back. What we thought we were going to have to deal with we don’t have to deal with because he’s improved since we started construction."
The improvements at Magee have been chronicled on that Facebook page. In the beginning, Brian couldn't feel anything from the chest down, his mother said. Now, he has feeling nearly everywhere, and he's getting different sensations almost every other day or two days, Joan Page said.
Doctors have told the family it could be a year and a half to two years until they know the full recovery. It hasn't been five months yet.
In a recent video posted to the Facebook page, Brian is seen moving his fingers slightly.
"That's minuscule," he says in the video.
"I think he realizes it’s huge," his mother said Friday. "I don’t think he wants to put too much value in it so that there’s not a disappointment for him.
"This is very off for him to be the center of attention. He’s always been behind the scenes. Even with his hockey career, he was always the one who if he scored, he scored, but it was a team effort. It was not ‘Look at me.’ So this is very off for him."
A few weeks ago, Brian returned to the ice rink for the first time, surprising his Little Flyers teammates before a game.
Friday, he smiled big as he rode by supporters and his lacrosse teammates. Co-workers of Brian's father, Brian Sr., a veteran Delaware state trooper, lined the road.
Caesar Rodney High School has honored him in multiple ways so far this school year, and it will again Saturday, when Brian will take part in Senior Day festivities as the lacrosse team hosts Delmar for an afternoon game.
"It will feel kind of, as he says, normal," Joan Page said. "He just has wheels is how we look at him now. We’re like, 'You’re just you with wheels.' It’s the way I and we get through it. We keep a lot of levity to it.
"It is and was a serious accident. But it wasn’t … it’s not the end. We have a lot of ways to go."
Contact Jeff Neiburg at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeff_Neiburg.