Atkinson Overcomes Near-Death to Realize Dream at Vermont
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The University of Vermont is often referred to as 'UVM' — short for Universitas Viridis Montis, Latin for University of the Green Mountains. Well, three years ago, Vermont sophomore Chris Atkinson found himself facing a personal and physical challenge that itself seemed as high as one of those mountains. And never had greener pastures seemed as far away as they did on an unforgettable day in the winter of 2006.
Nevertheless, defying odds as described below, Atkinson's inspiring climb since that day is one of the most stunning personal stories you'll hear at this year's Frozen Four.
Said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, "It's nothing short of a miracle, really."
Flash back to Feb. 25, 2006. Atkinson and the United States Under-18 National Development team — coached by former Boston University standout John Hynes — were playing an exhibition game in Rochester, N.Y., against RIT. Suddenly, what began as a regular shift on the ice for Atkinson ended in a moment that came close to tragedy.
A hard check by an RIT player flipped Atkinson's teammate Trent Palm — now a junior defenseman for Minnesota-Duluth — in the air, in the direction of Atkinson, who was skating seemingly harmlessly in the direction of the action. But before Atkinson — or anyone — could react to the unfortunate series of events, Palm's airborne skate made contact with Atkinson's neck, instantly slicing his left jugular vein.
"I was looking at the play, and after [Palm] got flipped, I saw his skate coming toward me," Atkinson told ESPN last February. "I closed my eyes, and the next thing I know, I'm going down. I thought my collarbone was broken because I couldn't move my left arm. Then I felt the heat from all the blood pouring down."
As it turned out, Atkinson suffered a major nerve injury as well — hence the inability to move his left arm. Combined with the blood loss, Atkinson's life hung in the balance as trainers and an ambulance rushed him to the hospital for a delicate emergency surgery to repair his severed vein. A separate, lengthy surgery was later required to resolve his nerve damage.
His life had been saved — and of course that was the ultimate goal — but his hockey career, which had barely even begun, was in obvious jeopardy. Further complicating the situation was that the nerve damage to his left arm had rendered him exceedingly weak on that side.
But Atkinson — just months removed from the potentially fatal accident — was determined to overcome this obstacle. And when he arrived as a freshman in Burlington, at the University of Vermont, with those green mountains as its backdrop, Atkinson began a thorough training program with team trainer Gregg Brueck and strength coach Paul Goodman.
"We watched him practice with one arm for a season," said Sneddon this week. "He could not even hold his stick up with that one arm."
Then, after a pause, Sneddon continued, "And now he's helping us compete for a national championship."
Indeed, almost two years after Atkinson's on-ice accident, he played again, in front of emotional friends and family. His return to the ice came just in time for the 2007-08 season, his official freshman campaign that followed a redshirt year filled with ongoing rehabilitation and physical therapy.
This season, as a sophomore, Atkinson has contributed three goals and four assists while playing in 34 of the Catamounts' 38 games. His goals include the game-winner in the Catamounts' season-opening victory over Rensselaer and a timely tally in a 4-3 win at Boston University's Agganis Arena in November. And the Terriers are of course Atkinson's and the Catamounts' opponent on Thursday night in Washington, D.C., with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Slightly over three years removed from his horrific accident, Atkinson — who worked so hard to get back on the ice in the first place — will realize a dream of every college hockey player: playing in the NCAA Frozen Four.
And for someone who came so close to not playing at all, this is all the sweeter.
"It's a great story, and we're very proud of him, " said Sneddon. "It's through a lot of hard work that he's able to do what he's doing right now. I'm sure there were a lot of people who just didn't think it would be possible, but he never stopped believing in himself. Our training staff and medical staff have done a great job to get him to this point."
Now, no matter what happens this weekend at the Frozen Four, Atkinson has proven his resiliency, his strength, and his will to climb from the very bottom of the mountain to the very top.
And with the perspective he has gained over the last three years, facing a life-threatening situation and defiantly overcoming it, he can finally enjoy the view.