Merrimack Freshman Overcomes Life-Threatening Issue
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
In the present, Merrimack’s Jordan Heywood has risen to the top as one of the best freshmen defensemen in Hockey East.
Heck, he’s one of the best, period, leading the league with a plus-21 rating.
But just two years ago, Merrimack wasn’t even on Heywood’s radar. Hockey was barely. There was a period when he thought he’d never touch the ice again.
He was 19 years old playing for the Victoria Grizzlies. Through 23 games he had already surpassed his season point total from the previous season, but something didn’t feel right.
“I was having trouble breathing,” he said, “and no one could tell me why.”
So he did what most hockey players do, he sucked it up and played through the pain.
But things didn’t get better. In fact, they were getting worse.
“Finally we did a CT scan,” Heywood said. “That’s when they found them.”
He had blood clots in his lungs that was making it hard for him to breathe during strenuous activities like playing hockey. But more than that, it was a life-or-death situation.
It started with deep-vein thrombosis in his left leg. Usually, he says, it would be accompanied by throbbing pain. But Heywood didn’t feel anything.
There's no questioning his toughness.
“Your leg usually swells when you have it and you feel uncomfortable with a lot of pain,” he said. “But that swelling never happened with me that first time and I didn't feel anything other than having trouble breathing.”
So while the clot kept getting bigger, Heywood kept playing hockey.
“Doctors thought it was a few different things,” he said. “Once I got the scan they saw the blood clots in my lungs. I had been playing with them for about a month and pieces of the clots broke off and traveled into my lungs.”
First thing Heywood had to do was stop playing hockey. He was put on blood thinners that he still takes on a daily basis to help combat future clots.
“I just have to schedule around hockey,” he said, “because obviously if I get cut or something out on the ice, it could bleed a lot.”
While at home he got a job as a waiter and wasn’t sure if he’d ever play hockey again, let alone earn a Division 1 scholarship.
He was happy just to be alive.
“Not to sound dramatic but it was a brush with death,” he said. “The doctors told me that I could have died. I shouldn’t have survived.”
Most times blood clots in person's lungs means that a person can survive for a matter of hours; Heywood was playing hockey through them for about a month.
A study by Barrit and Jordan published that roughly 74 percent of people who have a clot in their lungs do not survive.
Again, there is no questioning Heywood’s toughness.
“You mature pretty quickly,” he said. “It makes you realize how quickly things can be taken away and that there is more to life than just hockey. But it also makes you really appreciate being able to play the game.”
Defense off the ice
Not only is Heywood defending some of the most talented forwards in the country, he’s defending himself against future problems caused by the thrombosis.
“I have to do things like wear compression socks,” he said. “I can’t really sit for more than two hours at a time. There are some blood thinners I have to take to lessen the risk of future clotting.”
But still, nothing is perfect.
Just before the start of this season, Heywood had another clot in his leg.
“At least I know what’s going on now,” he said. “There is no mystery of it being unknown.”
Nothing wrong with hockey
Heywood isn’t alone in his ambition to play hockey at a high level, despite the risks of future clots.
Jed Ortmeyer, who last year played for the San Jose Sharks, shares a similar affliction. The two met last year when the Sharks visited the Vancouver Canucks.
“It’s great to know that I don’t have to stop playing hockey because of this,” Heywood said. “(Ortmeyer) is playing at the highest level there is. We shared some stories and it was good to meet him.”
Wise beyond his years
“There are few players who I have had the privilege to coach that have the maturity level Jordan has,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy, “it’s often easy for me to forget that he’s only a freshman.”
Heywood has been a fixture all over the ice for Dennehy. Playing a top-four position, he’s also been a usual on the power play and penalty kill.
When forward Stephane Da Costa was injured last week against UNH, it was Heywood who moved to the top power-play unit, taking Da Costa’s customary spot on the point.
When Heywood fired a wrister past UNH’s Matt Di Girolamo in overtime of last Saturday’s 3-2 win for the Warriors, it was perhaps the exclamation point to what has been a stellar rookie season.
That’s not to say it’s over, but it could well turn out to be not only a defining moment for Heywood, but the entire team as the Warriors make a push for a Hockey East title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
When asked where the goal ranked in his career to date, Heywood said,
“It’s up there as one of the highest. I haven’t scored too many OT goals. What we battled through, all the adversity with the penalty kills … at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who scored, as long as we won.”
This article originally appeared in the Eagle-Tribune.