ALLIE SKELLEY is in his second year as head ice hockey coach at Holderness School. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
November 28, 2011HOLDERNESS — Allie Skelley still carries the physical reminders of what was one of the most horrific moments of his life.
However, when he looks around at his life today, he realizes that everything happens for a reason and that horrific moment nine years ago led him to where he is now. And those are the good memories that were created out of something bad.
The Kingswood graduate is in his second year as the head coach of the Holderness School ice hockey team and has settled into a life that he never imagined, but one in which he says he's never been happier.
"It put everything into perspective, what's important in my life, no doubt about it," Skelley said. "I would not be here and who knows what I'd be doing. But I know I wouldn't be as happy as I am now."
The incident that Skelley is referring to happened on Dec. 13, 2002, a Friday night, while Skelley was skating for the St. Lawrence University hockey team in a game against Lake Superior State.
Skelley remembers that he was near the blue line and a Lake Superior forward was coming out of the opposite corner with the puck. He started toward the net, looking for the pass and it deflected off his stick and went to the end board.
"I felt someone behind me and as I tried to make a move, he gave me a good cross check," Skelley said.
The check sent the Wolfeboro native into the boards head first in a collision that he said looked twice as bad as the one that paralyzed Boston University star Travis Roy.
"The next thing I knew, I was on the ice, I woke up and I couldn't feel anything," Skelley said. "Then things started tingling. I was just out of it."
While the player who hit Skelley was given a penalty, reports on that evening said that it didn't appear there was any intent to injure.
It was a moment that changed Skelley's life and one that he credits with bringing him to the place he's at now.
To understand what happened next, a person needs to know who Skelley is and how he got to be playing Division I college hockey.
A 1998 graduate of Kingswood Regional High School, Skelley was a three-sport star, playing hockey, baseball and football in his time in green and white. He helped the Knights win a baseball championship in 1998 and a football championship in 1996. As a solid three-sport star, Skelley drew interest from prep schools, but his familiarity with Kingswood athletics kept him in a Knight uniform.
A lot of that experience came growing up, tagging along as his father, Chip, coached the baseball and football teams.
"Winning championships with my dad as coach is one of the best experiences of my life," Skelley said. "The experience I had at Kingswood was awesome. We had some good athletes and we had a lot of fun."
Upon graduation from Kingswood, Skelley decided to do a postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy and while the academics at the school were quite impressive, the main reason he chose to do an extra year was for athletics.
"I knew I wanted to play a sport in college, I just didn't know which one," he said. He helped the Phillips Exeter hockey and baseball teams to New England championships and was drawing more interest as a quarterback than anything else.
But St. Lawrence came calling and after one visit to the school and with the coaching staff and Skelley knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go.
"I knew that the one sport I could put all my heard and energy into was going to be hockey," he said. "For whatever reason, at the end of the day, that's what I felt."
So off he went to upstate New York, where he red-shirted his freshman year. The team had eight defensemen, including at least five seniors, so a year to prepare wasn't necessarily a bad thing for the former Knight.
"I needed that red shirt year to just figure things out and try to elevate my game to that level," Skelley said.
Skelley spent that first year working his butt off but recalls never being intimidated.
"My work ethic got me through," he said. "That and a lot of time in the weight room and extra ice sessions."
The hard work paid off in his sophomore year, as Skelley earned a spot on the St. Lawrence blue line, where he also found himself changing the way he played.
"At Kingswood, I was an offensive-minded defenseman, but at St. Lawrence I had to switch and become a defensive-minded defenseman," he said, noting that the team had a number of offensive-minded guys on the blue line. "There had to be one guy who cared about defense."
Skelley continued to work his butt off and it kept coming back to him in playing time.
"You trust your coaches, rely on your work ethic and I got so much better," he said. "I was fortunate enough to have the coaching staff see that."
Skelley noted that coach Joe Marsh continues to be one of his mentors to this day, a guy who appreciated hard work and perseverance.
"So many coaches, if you're not drafted, they're not going to give you a shot, but he was different," Skelley said. "It paid off for him and it paid off for me."
One fateful night
Looking back on the night of his horrific injury, Skelley remembers a lot of what went on, but he also remembers not wanting to miss the rest of the game.
After all, he had worked his butt off to get that ice time and if he was out, someone else was going to be taking his spot and all that hard work may have gone to waste.
Lying on the ice, that was one thing that was in the front of his mind.
"They asked me all the questions and of course, I didn't give the best answers," Skelley remembers. "I wanted to get back out there, I didn't want to miss a shift."
After a doctor assessed him, Skelley was allowed to skate off the ice but when he got back to the lockerroom, he found he couldn't walk straight. He seemed to be going to the left. The muscles in his neck seized up and, "it began to hurt like heck."
At one point, Skelley remembers someone popping their head in the room asking if he'd be able to get back on the ice.
"I thought I'd say yes, but luckily I said no," he said. "The next thing I know they're taking me to the hospital."
Highs and lows
The timing of the injury was certainly not opportunistic for the talented hockey player.
Skelley was in his senior year at St. Lawrence, but due to the red-shirt season, he had another year of eligibility.
To cap it all off, St. Lawrence was coming off what was one of the best weekends of Skelley's hockey life.
The previous weekend, St. Lawrence was at the University of New Hampshire. The Wildcats were ranked number one in the country and Skelley's Saints had rallied back to pick up a 4-2 win over the host Cats.
"It was awesome," Skelley remembers. Lots of friends and family were in the stands at the Whittemore Center in Durham. "I went from being on top of the world to this."
Reality setting in
At the hospital near St. Lawrence, Skelley said the reality of the situation began setting in.
"I still remember being in the hospital bed, with half my gear on and doctors saying it's a fractured and dislocated L5, 6, and 7," Skelley said, referring to the highest vertebrae in the neck. "The next thing I know, I'm pinned down on the bed."
He recalls his coaches coming into the room with tears in their eyes.
"That's when I knew things weren't that good," he said.
Skelley was transported by ambulance to Burlington, Vt. in the middle of a raging snowstorm. His grandparents had been at the game and his parents drove through the same snowstorm from Wolfeboro. Chip Skelley remembers the trip taking about six hours and notes that at times, he felt they were going 10 miles an hour.
Skelley arrived at the hospital in the early morning hours and it just so happened that the surgeon on call was one of the best neurosurgeons in the northeast, which Skelley said was a lucky break on his part on a night where things were not going terribly well.
Before any type of surgery could take place, Skelley's spine had to be set. He was fitted with a halo that was screwed into his head and it had weights on it. The doctor pulled on his legs and he remembers seeing the nurse in the room just crying.
"I was just in shock," Skelley said.
Skelley will always remember that no matter where he played, whether it was out west or at UNH in Durham, there was always at least one member of his family on hand for his games. His grandparents had made the trip that fateful weekend in 2002, but quite often one or both of his parents were on hand for games.
"No matter where I played, there was always a family member there," he said.
And when it came time to make a decision as to what was going to be the next step in the young hockey player's care, it came to what his family thought.
"They had to ask my parents, do you want to do this," Skelley said of the surgery. "He may never walk or he may not make it out of surgery."
Hands of a surgeon
The surgery that doctors performed on Skelley involved taking a piece of bone from his hip and fusing it into his neck. To this day, the wires, pins and screws from that surgery are still in his neck.
"But all it would have taken was a sneeze by the neurosurgeon and I'd have been done," he said.
Skelley remembers waking up after the surgery and his father was in the room. The first thing he asked was if he'd ever play hockey again. The response his father gave him was not what he wanted to hear.
But being who he was, he knew he would fight to change that.
"I was in the hospital for a week and that's when it really set in," he said. "But being the competitive person that I am, I knew there was nobody who was going to tell me what I can do."
A couple years after the surgery, Skelley began skating again and played in a few different non-contact men's leagues, but it soon became obvious that the possibility of another injury was too great to allow him to keep playing.
"It's your life and whenever you don't leave something on your own terms, it leaves a mark," he said. "Coaching has filled that void."
Back in the saddle
In his duties now, Skelley gets out on the ice with his team every day and hockey has again become part of his life.
But for a while, it was tough to be around his teammates and friends.
"I was part of the team, but it was frustrating," he said.
Despite his inability to play hockey, St. Lawrence honored Skelley's athletic scholarship and he received his Masters of Education Administration and also majored in Economics. He graduated in 2003 and did his graduate work the following year.
A few years after leaving the school, Skelley took a huge step forward and went to see one of the team's games.
Now, when they are nearby, he doesn't miss a chance.
"Now I go every time they play at UNH or Dartmouth," he said, praising coach Marsh for helping him to reach the point that he is today.
"Anyone who knows coach Marsh, that's just the way he is," Skelley said. "That (continuing the scholarship) was a gift from them, which they didn't have to do."
He remembers that Marsh would often drive him to doctor's appointments in Burlington, a drive of almost three hours.
On to the future
With college in the past, Skelley was looking around for a job, still unsure of what to do. His younger brother Tad, in his own right a star athlete at Kingswood, decided to move on to Holderness and representatives from the school knew of the older Skelley's history and asked what he was doing these days.
"They said they had an admissions job," he said. "Within five minutes of being on campus, I knew this is what I want to do."
Skelley spend five years in the admissions office and has since moved on to the math department, where he serves as a teacher. He is also the Assistant Dean of Students, which means he's in charge of all the "fun discipline."
He coaches JV football and is an assistant coach for the varsity baseball team, but during winters he can be found on the outdoor rink at Holderness School as the team's ice hockey coach.
Skelley did his time, serving six years as an assistant coach under a couple of different head coaches before finally landing the top job prior to last season.
The team plays about half of its games on the outdoor rink and the other half on the new Plymouth State University ice arena, but Skelley admits that the competitive person inside him puts the really good teams on the outdoor rink.
"That's a home-ice advantage for sure," he said.
Looking back on that fateful night nine years ago, Skelley is reminded that not everything goes exactly as one would plan it, but in the end, things work out.
"When you're in college, you're not really thinking about that next step," he said. "But for me, I never thought it would be coaching.
"My injury was just a life-changing experience that I had," he said.
It's not too many people who can take such a horrific event and turn it into a positive story, but Allie Skelley has never been one to have people tell him what he can and can't do.
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 569-3126