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Remembering Travis Roy: A legacy created from tragedy but built on inspiration

After being paralyzed in his first college hockey game, Maine native Travis Roy inspired thousands nationwide. Roy passed away Thursday at the age of 45.

NEW CANADA, Maine — Travis Roy is a name many Mainers know well. Thousands of youth hockey players have skated at the Travis Roy Ice Arena at North Yarmouth Academy. But thousands more around the nation know his story.

During his first shift, in his first collegiate hockey game, at Boston University Roy took the ice with the Terriers leading North Dakota 1-0.

11 seconds later, Roy's life changed.

After finishing a routine check, he fell into the boards, breaking his fourth vertebrae leaving him paralyzed. For 25 years Roy used that tragedy as motivation and inspiration for others.

On Thursday, it was announced that Travis Roy died from complications from his paralysis at age 45.

“It was a gut punch when I got the news last night, and it was a rough night I’m not going to lie to ya," Dale Arnold, a Boston Bruins pre and post-game analyst for NESN and Boston radio host said Friday.

NESN's Tom Caron talks about Travis Roy's life

Arnold's career in the hockey broadcasting world crossed paths with Roy several times over the years, but their relationship didn't begin after the accident, it began 15 years earlier.

Before calling professional hockey, football, basketball, and baseball games in Boston, Arnold worked for the Maine Mariners, a broadcasting gig in his home state. The Maine native remembers a young Travis Roy running around the weight room and locker room, as his father Lee worked at the arena of the Mariners.

“Travis was this little toe-headed 5-year-old kid who everyone just sort of adopted in the organization," Arnold added.

As that 'toe-headed' five-year-old elevated his motor skills from picking up sticks after games to holding sticks on the ice, it was easy to tell the kid had talent.

NESN's Dale Arnold remembers Travis Roy from the age of 5

“People forget what a great hockey player he was, he would have been, in my opinion, one of the best players to ever come out of the state of Maine," Tom Caron, a fellow Mainer, and NESN employee said.

During a zoom call Friday, Caron mentioned he called some of Roy's high school hockey games when he was working at a local news station in Maine.

“People in Yarmouth would actually go the library and check out the old VHS tape of Travis playing in high school because people wanted to go back and remember what he was like as a player, Caron said.

Like all promising hockey stars, deciding on a home to play college hockey was a tough decision. Highly recruited by many Division I schools, Roy made his recruiting trip to Boston University at the same time Arnold was calling Terrier hockey games.

He caught up with Travis and Lee and gave him his opinion on where the high schooler should play at the next level.

“If you have the opportunity to play at Boston University and to play for a guy like (Jack) Parker, you’ve got to take a grab at it, you’ve got to advantage of it," Arnold told Roy.

The following year, in 1995, the kid from Maine was lacing up his skates for a legendary coach at a legendary program. His first game was on Friday, Oct. 20.

Arnold didn't watch the game. The next day he walked down his driveway to get the newspaper and saw a familiar face.

“(I) got my Boston Herald out of my newspaper box and the entire front page of the Herald was a headshot of Travis and I just, my heart sank," he added.

Arnold rushed to the hospital to find Jack Parker and Travis' parents. At that point, it was clear to see that his situation was permanent.

Initially, Roy was a quadriplegic, but he was able to gain motion back in one hand allowing him to control a motorized wheelchair.

It wasn't much longer after that hospital trip, that the Travis Roy Foundation and the Travis Roy legacy was born.

"(Roy) took a devastating injury, the darkest moment of his life and turned it into a life’s calling, a mission, to help other people going through the same thing, a remarkable, inspirational person," Caron said.

The Travis Roy Foundation helps aide spinal cord injury survivors live adaptable lives. The foundation has raised millions of dollars to advance the treatment of paralysis.

Credit: NCM

When the hockey world found out about Roy's situation, they were in full support. 

“They were drawn to his story, they were drawn to his personality, they were drawn to his positiveness and even guys who didn’t know him, like Wayne Gretzky, wanted to help him," Arnold said.

When the Los Angeles Kings were visiting the Boston Bruins soon after the accident, a few players on the visiting team visited Roy. Patrick Conacher was on L.A. but had spent time with the Maine Mariners before making it to the NHL. He knew little Travis from his days collecting tape in the locker room and shared Roy's story with his teammates.

One of those teammates happened to be the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky.

Arnold said Gretzky, Conacher, and other players visited Roy in the hospital. When they left, Gretzky went back into the hospital room and made one of the first donations to the Travis Roy Foundation.

A few years ago, Roy was invited to drop the ceremonial 'first puck' at a Bruins game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Boston was planning on giving Roy his own jersey with his Boston University number, 24.

Credit: Dale Arnold

But Roy had a problem with that. No issue with the jersey, but the number, because if you go to the Boston Garden and take a look at the rafters you'll see No. 24 is up there in honor of Bruins legend Terry O'Reilly.

The number was retired and Roy didn't want to take the legacy away from the Hall of Famer. So, Arnold said, the Bruins had to make a phone call.

“(O'Reilly) said basically along the lines of, what are you kidding me? I’d be honored for him to wear it. But Travis didn’t want to wear it because it was retired, it was retired for Terry O'Reilly.”

Going back 25 years and watching the video of that first shift, it's hard to imagine a legacy built off of such a tragedy.

“He played 11 seconds of college hockey and in the end, he will be the most important players in the history of college hockey and that’s not overstating it," Caron said and Arnold agreed.

Caron has two sons who both grew up playing hockey in Massachusetts but, like many youth players did, spent time at the Travis Roy Ice Arena. They were able to meet Roy and Caron was able to instill important messages to his boys.

“The work in your life goes beyond the people you meet, and that’s the case with Travis," Caron said. "We should all be as fortunate as Travis Roy to find a calling and be able to pursue it with the passion and dedication that he did.”

A Mainer whose legacy started with a tragedy but will remain for generations. Rest in peace, Travis Roy.