Philanthropist Travis Roy passes away at 45

Travis Roy, who inspired millions after a hockey tragedy, passes away at 45

Shortly after Roy’s accident, more than 200 special church Masses and prayer services were held in his honour

Representative Image. Credit: Pixabay Photo

Travis Roy, who suffered a paralysing injury just 11 seconds into his first hockey game for Boston University in 1995 and, as a philanthropist and motivational speaker, was revered by the sports world as an example of determination and courage, died Thursday in a hospital outside Burlington, Vermont. He was 45.

The cause was complications of surgery he needed after 2 1/2 decades of being in a wheelchair, Keith VanOrden, his brother-in-law, said.

In the opening seconds of a televised college hockey game October 20, 1995, Roy, a forward, skated in to body-check an opposing defenseman, crashed into the boards and fell to the ice.

“It was as if my head had become disengaged from my body,” he recalled in a book, Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage & Triumph, written with E.M. Swift. “I was turning the key in the ignition on a cold winter morning, and the battery was completely dead. Not a spark. Just click, and nothing. And right away it passed through my mind I was probably paralyzed.”

The injury left Roy a quadriplegic. Eventually, he regained some movement in his right arm, which he used to work the joystick on his wheelchair.

College hockey is held in awe in Boston, its athletes worshipped and its fallen participants mourned. Shortly after Roy’s accident, more than 200 special church Masses and prayer services were held in his honour, according to his father, Lee.

That reverence for the younger Roy grew as he gave motivational speeches and raised money to help those with spinal injuries and to fund research.

The Travis Roy Foundation, established in 1996 to support people with spinal cord injuries, has given nearly $5 million in research grants and helped more than 2,100 quadriplegics and paraplegics, according to its website.

Travis Roy was born April 17, 1975, in Yarmouth, Maine, to Brenda and Lee Roy, the manager of several sports arenas who had been a standout player at the University of Vermont. By the mid-1990s, Travis Roy had become one of the country’s top college hockey recruits.

The Boston University team he joined was a hockey powerhouse. It included four players who went on to long National Hockey League careers: Chris Drury, Mike Grier, Jay Pandolfo and Shawn Bates.

Drury, a sophomore on the team, was on the ice when Roy crashed into the boards in a game against North Dakota. “I was just 10 feet away when it happened,” he recalled in an interview. “It was chilling.”

“That could have been me,” Drury said. “And the way Travis had dealt with this tragedy is an inspiration to me.”

Now the assistant general manager for the New York Rangers, Drury went on to win a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche and an Olympic silver medal with the U.S. Olympic Hockey team, but he remained close with Roy. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Travis Roy,” he said.

After Drury won the Cup with the Avalanche, he took it to Boston, where Roy lived. “It was the first time I had ever seen the Stanley Cup,” Roy said at the time. “It was a thrill.”

The New York Rangers said Thursday that Roy was “a true pioneer who dedicated his life to advocating for spinal cord injury survivors and whose legacy has transcended the world of sports.”

The Los Angeles Kings said, “Travis was always so kind in his nature and inspired so many through his perseverance and courage.”

Roy is survived by his parents and a sister, Tobi VanOrden, Keith VanOrden said.

Roy’s determination was evident shortly after his accident. VanOrden recalled “watching him graduate in four years" even though he was unable "to pick up a highlighter or take notes in class.”

That, he said, “pales in comparison to what he did as a motivational speaker.”

“Sometimes in life you choose your challenges; other times the challenges choose you,” Roy would say, according to VanOrden. “And it’s what you do in the face of those challenges that defines who you are and what you’ll become.”

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