Mid-Missouri hockey player fights spinal injury one small step at a time
COLUMBIA - For Mick Deaver, it was just another game.
"We were in New Jersey, coming off a big win, going through the game day routine."
And it was just another shift.
"I hopped over the boards, got a pass and started skating up the ice."
Three seconds later, everything had changed.
"I fell and ran into a kid. And then I couldn't move."
For kids growing up in mid-Missouri, hockey isn't usually the sport of choice. Halfway between the St. Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals, baseball and softball are more popular and the historical success of the University of Missouri basketball team leads to hundreds of hoops hopefuls.
But not Mick Deaver.
"Hockey was always it for me," Deaver said. "I played a lot of other sports, but when I first played hockey, I immediately fell in love and it never stopped."
At three years old, Deaver learned to skate at Washington Park Ice Arena in Jefferson City, the only ice rink in mid-Missouri. For the next 12 years, he and his parents made the half-hour drive from Columbia to the state's capitol city three or four times a week to play.
"When you love something like that, you'll do it what it takes to play. I always wanted to be on the ice."
Deaver developed into a promising young player and at 15 years old, moved to Boston for a better opportunity for continue his hockey career.
After a year of work, he earned a spot on the Boston Bandits roster in the Eastern Hockey League, one of the country's top junior developmental circuits.
"It was an amazing opportunity. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to go pro, so getting to live a mini-experience like that, where you're just playing hockey and traveling, I loved it."
Deaver, whose grandfather, a former MUPD officer, is the namesake for the street that connects Mizzou Arena and Faurot Field, was playing well, too. He had been named team captain and played forward and defense, depending on what his team needed. His strong play was noticed by coaches and scouts and he was well on his way to earning a chance to play in college.
Until one day in November.
Deaver remembers it like it was yesterday.
"I had the puck and someone was coming after me, I fell and ran into his hip."
"It's a play I've seen a million times," said Shawn Deaver, Mick's dad, who was watching the game online in Columbia. "I've never seen it end like that. I have no idea how it happened."
Deaver fell to the ice and didn't get up. Soon, everyone at the arena realized an innocent looking play was anything but innocent.
"I was laying there and my feet feel like they're up in the air, and I look down and they're on the ice. It felt like all pins and needles everywhere."
Shawn, 1,000 miles away, felt his heart drop.
"That quick it was 'don't let it be Mick, don't let it be Mick' and then they pan in and you see the numbers on the top of the helmet, and you just sit there."
Deaver said he tried to get back up and then realized he couldn't.
"I just said to my teammate 'I can't move, I can't get up'".
Deaver's C5 vertebrae burst on the play, an injury that sometimes results in paralysis. He was immediately rushed to the hospital for tests and evaluation.
"When I first got into the CAT Scan and MRI machine, that's when it really hit me how serious it was. Everything is about to change."
Shawn and Jennifer Deaver, Mick's mother, immediately started making plans to get to New Jersey.
"It's every parent's worst nightmare," Shawn said. "Your kid is in trouble and you're not there to help."
Deaver spent the next few weeks in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), mostly motionless. He could move his arms a little bit, but nothing else below his shoulders.
"I would just sit there and stare at the clock, watching it tick and waiting for time to pass, just laying there hoping something would move again," he said.
A few weeks later, he got his wish in the form of a very special Christmas gift.
"On Christmas Day I was blessed to move my right index finger. The very next day my middle finger and thumb moved and by the end of the week my whole right hand was moving again."
Deaver continued to progress and regain movement over the next two months. Then, in late February, against all odds, he walked again.
"I was talking to the doctor and asked what the plan for the day was and he just says 'oh we're gonna get him up and walking'," Shawn said. "I was just like, 'excuse me?',".
"I remember being so frustrated," Deaver said. "As a kid you learn to walk but when you're 18 years old, you already know what to do and you're telling your body to do something that it just can't do the way you want it to."
After a few more months of physical therapy, Deaver was able to return to Missouri and move back home with his family.
"That was a special time for me to see everyone here just so supportive. It meant so much to me," he said.
He's now in physical therapy three to four days a week. He walks with a rolling walker on occasion and sometimes with crutches. He does sit ups and practices standing up and sitting down under control.
An athlete at heart, he tries to treat therapy like training.
"I want them to push me to do better. Every day is a challenge and you just have to do something everyday to make yourself better."
For someone who suffered such a serious injury and saw their life change forever in half a second, it would have been easy for Deaver to be angry, distant, or pessimistic.
He's none of those things.
"You just can't be negative. It doesn't help the doctors, the nurses, your friends or family, or the people that care about you," he said. "You have to keep a positive mindset and keep looking forward because it will get better."
Deaver relies on his his dad for a lot of help with day-to-day tasks, but Shawn doesn't think he was the one that helped Mick through it, rather the other way around.
"He does a good job of keeping us in balance, really," Shawn said. "He's just a likeable kid. He's one of those people, whether or not you like him, you just kind of like him."
Deaver has never surrendered that love of hockey, either. He still watches his favorite NHL team, the St. Louis Blues regularly and watched with excitement as the U.S.A. Women's Olympic Team won gold in PyeongChang in February.
"When you love something you can't just give it up. Hockey's been my entire life since I was little and that will never change."
Deaver admits physical therapy can be a grind. When he sits down too quickly or not under control, his "punishment" is bending down to pick his cell phone off the floor, something he laughingly bemoans every time he has to do it.
His prognosis remains positive. He has regained control of most of his hands and feet and is now focusing on smaller details, like clenching his fist.
But he pushes through every workout with one simple goal.
"I want to skate again one day. So whether that's a year from now, five years from now, or ten years from now, I will skate again."
For now, he grinds every day to be reunited with the sport he loves.
"I can't wait for that day, when it comes, it'll be something special."