There were no guarantees, but Brian Page Jr. was on a path that may have led to the NHL.
Now his goal is to walk again.
Page, 17, was a good enough hockey player that he had signed a tender agreement to play in the North American Hockey League next season.
Down the road, his junior-level coach said, the 6-foot, 160-pound center/winger had the ability to play for a major college, many of which were recruiting him. If all went according to plan, he would get drafted one day and later reach the NHL.
Those dreams were shattered, and his life was forever changed when Page absorbed an on-ice hit Nov. 15 and was paralyzed from the chest down.
Playing for the Philadelphia Little Flyers – a squad from Aston that is not affiliated with the NHL team but was granted permission to use the name – Page skated into the offensive zone in a game in Trenton.
“I cut between two D, and then the next thing you know, a kid came across – and I’m pretty sure he hit me in the chest – and I think it was clean,” Page said in a recent phone interview from his hospital bed.
Page went down to the ice. His mom, Joan, was in her car in the arena parking lot, placing an order for her job as a food-service director for a nursing home. Fans weren’t allowed inside the arena because of COVID-19 restrictions, and Joan was startled when the Little Flyers’ manager knocked on her car window, explaining her son was injured.
She raced onto the ice before an ambulance arrived.
“Mama, I can’t feel my legs,” he told her. “I’m never playing hockey again.”
His mom tried to calm him down, gently reminding him he had overcome a sliced left wrist the previous year.
“Baby, we got this,” she said. “We got through your arm. We’re going to get through this.”
“Mama, that was a cut,” he replied. “I’m not playing again.”
Page’s Little Flyers teammates skated around him and gave words of encouragement. Page was taken to a regional medical center in Trenton, and doctors said he broke his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae and did damage to C-4 and C-7. He was then flown to Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where he had four surgeries, including two to stabilize the spine and neck. In one operation, two rods and 10 pins were inserted.
Two weeks later, Page was transferred to nearby Magee Hospital, where he is currently going through rehabilitation.
“Therapy is going good, and I definitely feel better every day,” he said from Magee.
Progress is being made. No longer does Page need a ventilator or a feeding tube that had been inserted into his stomach. No longer does he have to wear a bulky neck brace.
“He has been through so much, and his spirits are still better than what I could even imagine they would be,” said his dad, Brian Page Sr., a veteran Delaware state trooper. “He’s in great spirits.”
Each day, Page goes through occupational therapy from around 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The art, music and recreational therapy – he also sometimes does work with a therapy dog, Nigel – is designed to “help him become independent and do things and obviously keep his spirits up,” the elder Page said.
With a harness holding him up, the teenager has recently been on a treadmill as therapists move his legs to get his blood flowing and “hopefully stimulate his nerves and muscles,” said his dad.
Page is starting to gain more feeling. He can move his left arm up and down, and has a little function in his right arm. He has feelings in his fingers but no function, other than opening them. Both hands are getting stronger. He can shrug his shoulders. He can grab things because he can still flex his wrists.
Any movement, his father said, “takes a lot of effort and really tires him out.”
Though he was just 17, Page was invited to the North American Hockey League’s Amarillo Bulls training camp before this season. Most of the players on the junior team are 19 and 20, but Page was advanced for his age, said Rocky Russo, the coach of the Texas team. “Brian would have been the youngest player on our team.”
Page was with Amarillo for a couple weeks and played in one game, on Oct. 31, before being the last cut when rosters were trimmed. Russo felt Page needed one more year of under-18 hockey to “work on his strength, and we felt more ice time on the under-18 level would be best for him in the long run. Obviously he had a shortened season last season with his injury.”
The coach was referring to Page suffering a nasty wrist injury while playing with the junior Flyers in 2019. He was behind the net and deked a defender, who fell and accidentally sliced Page’s left wrist with his skate. The wrist bled profusely, and one of his teammates took off his jersey and used it as a makeshift tourniquet before Page went to the hospital for surgery.
“My son has been through so much,” his father said. “Broken jaw. Concussions. Broken wrists.”
Through all the injuries, he keeps coming back, keeps using hockey as an inspiration to recover.
After spending a few weeks with Amarillo, Page returned to the Little Flyers but not before he signed with the Bulls for 2021-22 season, “and actually when he finished his under-18 season this year, he was supposed to come back and join our team this season,” Russo said. “But then the injury happened” – less than two weeks after he left Texas – “and that changed his course drastically.”
Russo said Page “without question” would have played on a major college team in the future.
“Brian is extremely gifted; he’s got exceptional vision and hockey IQ. His skill set is high,” Russo said. “We already had some conversations with some Division I programs about him, and my expectation was he was going to continue to develop and absolutely be able to be a Division I student-athlete.”
Page played all three forward positions with the Little Flyers. Russo viewed him as a center because of his playmaking skills, his skating, and his ability to “change gears” and create space for himself. “He’s really a crafty player,” Russo said. “And we like having the puck on his stick coming out of our D zone and being able to make plays. Playing center, to me, would have been his long-term position at the junior hockey level and beyond.”
The younger Page, who is the second-oldest of four boys, and his family live in Magnolia, Del., just outside Dover. He said he can sometimes feel his toes, the bottom of his feet, and parts of his legs and stomach.
Despite the long odds he faces, walking and skating are his long-term aspirations, the slender Page said, though his father said a doctor at Jefferson who performed two surgeries to stabilize Page’s spine was not as optimistic. “His exact words were, it would be a miracle if he walked again,” Page Sr. said.
“If anybody can do it, I know he can,” Page Sr. said. “As parents, we’re inspired by him.”
Another doctor, Chris Formal, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine who is Page’s physician at Magee, hasn’t given up hope.
“There’s always a chance,” Formal said when asked if he thought Page would ever be able to walk again, “and it is early [since the injury]. I think we can say in all likelihood he’s going to improve his strength. We just don’t know how much. He and his therapists are working to increase his strength as much as possible and to use it to improve his function as much as possible.
“We’re only about two months into this, and he’s going to be improving for some time.”
Formal said that walking normally – that is, without braces, a cane or walker, or without someone’s assistance – “is something we’re going to aim for, but I can’t say it’s likely to happen based on other patients I’ve worked with.”
Page is working on “functional problems and things he can do for himself, like feed himself, and higher level things like getting back to his role in society as a student, and that will probably wait for a little later on,” Formal said. “Right now, he’s concentrating on getting healthy and improving his strength and his function.”
Added Formal: “This would be a difficult experience for anyone, but he’s certainly been positive and working hard. … He makes the staff here want to work hard, too.”
“This tells you what kind of person Brian is,” his father said. “He has a trach in [to suction secretions], and he can’t use the gym, but he says once he gets the trach out, and after he’s done with his physical therapy sessions, he asked his mother if he’s allowed to go in the gym and continue to work. He’s motivated. And I say that not just because he’s my son, but he had the talent to go really far in hockey. It’s tragic that this happened, but he’s battled through.”
In October 2019, Page severed three tendons, and an artery in his wrist while playing with the junior Flyers, a team from West Chester, “and he came back four months later and looked like he never missed a beat on the ice,” his dad said.
The younger Page said his current goal is to “get stronger. I don’t know how far I’m going to get, but I just want to get better every day.”
Brian Page Sr. or his wife sleep in their son’s hospital room and are with him around the clock.
“Since his accident, we’ve been with him 24/7,” Page Sr. said.
Page Jr., a senior at Caesar Rodney High in Camden, Del., is expected to be at Magee for about another month, though he will return there at some point in February and take part in the hospital’s day program Monday through Friday.
Throughout the ordeal, he has remained upbeat.
That doesn’t surprise Russo, his junior coach with Amarillo.
“Brian is just such a good kid,” Russo said. “He always had a smile on his face. He loved being at the rink, loved being around his teammates. If anybody has the right mental approach to something as catastrophic as this, it’s going to be him. I see it in the daily videos that we watch and the communication I have with his father. I believe Brian is going to find his way back. What that means ultimately, I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. But if somebody can overcome the diagnosis he’s gotten, it’s going to be him.”
Amarillo players wear BP stickers on their helmets to show their support for Page.
“We bring his jersey wherever we go,” Russo said. “It fills one of our stalls at home in our locker room on game day and also when we’re on the road. His No. 18 is hanging there.”
In honor of his favorite player, Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby, “he always wore 87 as a kid,” Russo said, “but when you get to junior hockey, the number selection isn’t as readily available, so we assigned him 18.”
Page has always had “this love for hockey since he was 3 years old. He always wanted to play. I played in a rec league and never played competitively and certainly was never as good as Brian,” his dad said. “He grew up watching me play, and he loved it and never stopped loving it.”
Brian Page Sr. grew up an hour north of Pittsburgh and has been a long-time Penguins fans. His son, naturally, also drifted toward the Penguins, and Crosby has always been his favorite player.
“When he was 3 years old, he would tell people his dad was Sidney Crosby,” said Page Sr., laughing.
The Flyers? They were the enemy.
Not now, however.
The Penguins are still No. 1 in the Page household, but the Flyers are no longer despised. They have been in touch with the family and, like the Penguins, have sent many team items to show their support. Among the Penguins items: a Crosby jersey that the center personalized, along with a card in which he wrote a heartfelt message. The Flyers sent a Claude Giroux jersey, and former Flyer Danny Briere wanted to visit him at Magee but wasn’t permitted because of COVID-19 regulations.
“The Flyers have been very supportive, and our outlook on that team has definitely changed because of the support they have given us and Brian,” the elder Page said. “I know they said when Brian gets out, hopefully he can go to the locker room with the team and maybe catch a game with them when they play the Penguins.”
The outpouring of support, Russo said, has been overwhelming.
“I’m just so happy and humbled by the response,” the Amarillo coach said. “And not just the hockey community, but people in general.”
“It really has given us the energy and the fight,” Page Sr. said. “There are good people out there. I know hockey is a tight-knit community, but I never thought it was like this. The Flyers and Penguins [have been supportive], I talked to Johnny Gaudreau [the South Jersey native who now stars for the Calgary Flames], and he texted me. People from the hockey community all over the world have [responded], even in Mexico people are following Brian on his Facebook page, and Joan is going to send them ‘87 Strong’ wristbands.
“The outpouring from teams has just been unbelievable. There’s a mom in Ohio who made these amazing, hand-stitched key chains with the colors of his jersey and an ’87′ on it that she sent him. A Catholic-school teacher reached out on Brian’s Facebook page. She asked her kids an extra-credit question on what the kids wanted for Christmas, and one kid said, ‘I want Brian Page to be able to walk again.’”
Brian Page Sr. got choked with emotion and had to pause.
“People,” he said, “have been amazing.”
A GoFundMe page, started by Page’s Little Flyers teammate, Corey Owens, has raised more than $320,000. The Adam Taliaferro Foundation is getting involved to help Page, and the Amarillo Bulls and Little Flyers are accepting donations for Page online. The list goes on and on.
Page’s parents will take him back home in about a month. By then, their Delaware house will have undergone lots of renovations to make it wheelchair accessible and to have the first floor redone. The formal living room will be converted into Brian’s bedroom, and the half bathroom will be turned into a thruway. A closet will be built to enable Brian to reach clothes from his wheelchair, and a room that used to serve as a classroom when Brian and his three siblings were home-schooled when younger will be converted into a huge bathroom that will be audio-controlled.
Page Sr. said he was fortunate to get connected to his contractor, Gary Brobst, the owner of DE Renovations and a man who has overcome obstacles from a car accident in which he broke his back, and his wife was severely injured.
“He can kind of relate to our situation,” Page Sr. said. “He’s been a blessing from the moment we talked to him. He had other projects ahead of ours. But once he realized Brian had four to six weeks left at Magee before he gets discharged, he talked to his other customers and let them know this project was a priority.”
As for his son’s future health, “We just don’t know yet where we’ll be down the road,” Page Sr. said.
Page said he and his wife just want their son, their rink rat, “to have the best intense therapy he can, and to have the best chances of walking again and doing things on his own.”
“Brian,” Joan Page said, “has always been a strong personality and a fighter.”