Hockey community rallies around paralyzed player Anthony Mastronardi – Detroit Free Press
Macomb Dakota hockey player AnthonyÂ Mastronardiâs journey of recovery after he was paralyzed during a game last year.
Detroit Free Press
Anthony Mastronardi lay on the ice, near the boards — his neck was broken, his brain was bleeding and his body went limp.
“I just felt my entire body go into total shutdown,” Anthony said.
He couldn’t move his legs, nor his arms, and he heard ringing in his ears.
“Why can’t I get up?” he remembers thinking. “What’s going on?”
Anthony, a junior defenseman at Macomb Dakota, crashed headfirst into the boards after getting tangled up with another player at the end of a high school hockey game Dec. 3. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
Anthony tried to scream but nothing came out.
“It was barely coming out as a whisper,” he said. “I was like, ‘Can you guys hear me? Can you hear me?’ But it felt like my voice was going away. I thought I was losing my breathing.”
Anthony’s coach, Jim Andonoff, came onto the ice. Andonoff is a retired battalion chief of the Sterling Heights Fire Department with more than 20 years of experience as a paramedic. Andonoff quickly assessed the situation. Anthony was hyperventilating and needed to be stabilized.
“I tried keeping him calm,” Andonoff said. “I kept explaining to him what was going to happen, what everyone was going to do.”
A hockey coach who happens to be a former paramedic? At a critical moment like that? Was that pure luck or a slice of serendipity?
Sarahanne Mastronardi, Anthony’s mother, believes that God puts people in your life at just the right place, at the right moment. She has witnessed it over and over since her son’s injury.
Like the amazing therapists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan.
Or the woman in Oakland County who quietly runs a nonprofit that helps injured hockey players.
Or the NHL player who visited Anthony on Christmas Eve.
Or the throng of local hockey players who showed up to a rink one day to show their support.
Or the thousands of people who attended a Red Wings alumni game to raise money for Anthony.
They all came into Anthony’s life at just the right moment, at just the right time, revealing something profound about the heart of Hockeytown.
‘I broke my neck’
Anthony, 17, spent two weeks in the intensive care unit at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital.
“His C-5 burst and his C-6 was fractured,” Sarahanne said.
Anthony was a quadriplegic. He broke the news to his younger brother, Jack, in a light-hearted conversation.
“It was like 2 in the morning,” Jack said. “Anthony wanted me to come back and see him.”
Jack and Anthony were alone in the hospital room. They are brothers, friends and teammates. Jack is a goalie on the team and watched his brother get hurt from the bench.
“He was trying to crack a joke about it,” Jack said. “I don’t know why. He was laughing, Anthony was like, ‘Dude, I broke my neck.’ ”
Jack had tears in his eyes: “I was like, ‘There is no way.’ ”
Hockey community responds
In the hockey community, everybody seems to know everybody; and word spread quickly.
At Dakota’s next home game, about 200 hockey players and coaches from local high school teams came together to support Anthony at the Mt. Clemens Ice Arena.
“It was amazing; the hockey world is so small, everybody knew about the incident,” Andonoff said. “There were teams from all over, even travel teams. It was overwhelming. There were a couple hundred kids there, easy, who showed up and went on the ice.”
Candles were lit in the arena and the lights were dimmed for a moment of silence.
Jack stood at center ice. “Kids came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry for what happened,’ ” Jack said. “They said, ‘Tell him I’m praying for him.’ ”
Anthony was still in the hospital. “I was a little sad thinking about it,” Jack said, “but it made me feel a lot better, that a lot of people are caring for him. That this will push him to recover. I know he’ll get better.”
Determined to get better
After spending two weeks in the intensive care unit, Anthony was transferred to Detroit Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan — a magical place, where there are inspirational stories everywhere you turn. The halls are filled with people buzzing around in wheelchairs. Learning to cope with everything from spinal cord injuries to strokes. Getting stronger. Finding different ways to be active.
It’s a place that seems to say, “No matter the situation, let’s figure out a way to make this work,” — and Anthony started doing rehab with Jessica Sesta, a physical therapist, who popped into his life, like a piece fitting perfectly into a puzzle.
“On the first day, he could barely lift his arms up,” Sesta said. “He couldn’t touch his face. He couldn’t itch his nose.”
But he had a fierce determination to get better, spending extra time doing therapy, like an athlete staying after practice. “He’d bring himself down early and stay late,” Sesta said. “He would stay until we kicked him out.”
Sesta, who has worked in the spinal cord unit for three years, felt a connection with Anthony. Her boyfriend is a hockey player. And Anthony’s family grew so close to Sesta that they now consider her family.
“I always say, ‘He’s the little brother I never had, and I’m the big sister he never had,’ ” she said. “He is positive, 100% of the time. He’s a jokester. He’s so caring and kind, an all-around great person, especially going through such a tough time. He’d never show up sad, mad or depressed.”
During the week, Anthony’s mother stayed with him in his room. On the weekends, she went home and his father, Al, who works as an engineer at Ford, stayed with him.
“Their family is so close and supportive, positive, helpful,” Sesta said. “They’d go above and beyond for anyone. While he was here, I met aunts, uncles, grandmas, cousins, principals, librarians. I can’t tell you how many. Just a very supportive family.”
Now, there is something else you should know about Anthony.
Nothing ever came easy to him. He had to work for everything he has achieved — on the ice and in the classroom. “He made varsity his sophomore year by the skin of his teeth,” Sarahanne said. “The reason was, the junior varsity team folded.”
Anthony was told he probably wouldn’t see the ice the entire season.
“My husband and I were like, Anthony, that’s way too much money to be practicing with these guys and never play in the game,” Sarahanne said. “You are going to be sitting in the stands with a suit on. You aren’t even going to suit up.”
Anthony insisted: “No, Mom, I will play.”
He worked his butt off to earn playing time.
“And he actually started,” Sarahanne said. “By sheer grit and hard work. I’m not going to tell you it was talent. It was by always doing a little extra. It was by always working hard.”
Now, she thinks back, and she says that was part of a grand plan, one last slice of serendipity.
“Now, it’s funny, looking back,” she said. “I think all of that was in preparation for this.”
Road to recovery
Family and faith are at the center of his recovery.
Anthony is deeply religious — he had a Bible app on his phone before the injury.
“Someone put his name at the Vatican,” Sarahanne said. “They lit candles for him at a cathedral in Germany. People are praying for him across the country. It’s just blown us away.”
And it has given Anthony even more strength.
“Faith is the No. 1 thing that keeps me going,” Anthony said. “God has been right next to me through all of this. I’m a firm believer that it’s all planned. Whatever His plan is for me.”
Doctors and therapists don’t know how much more Anthony will recover. He is still considered to be in the early part of the recovery phase.
“With swelling, they can’t tell us how many nerves are damaged or what he’ll get back or what he won’t get back,” Sarahanne said. “What they know is, repetition, the more you move, the more likely things are going to come back.”
One day, out of the blue, his left arm shot into the air. An arm that was paralyzed. Like all the wiring was reconnected for just a moment.
But he couldn’t move it again for months.
Slowly, through therapy, his strength returned in that arm.
“It’s very slow,” Sarahanne said. “He has worked for every motion he’s had. It took quite a while before it was strong enough and now, he’s able to use his left arm.”
Anthony cannot close his hand, so Sesta had to come up with several creative ways for him to do rehab. She basically wrapped a bat to his hands so he could play whiffle ball.
“He’d smack that ball and it would go flying,” she said.
His legs are paralyzed but therapists can get his muscles to move by using electrical stimulation, so that he can ride a stationary bike, keeping his legs strong.
“He responds really well,” said Kyle Weishaupt, an outpatient therapist. “He’s a hockey player. His legs are like cannons.”
The kindness of many
A fundraising event for Anthony Mastronardi, at Fraser Hockeyland on Sunday, April 30, 2017 in Fraser. Mastronardi suffered a severe spinal cord injury during a high school hockey game this past December.
Detroit Free Press
It’s amazing the people who pop into your life after a tragedy.
On Christmas Eve, Anthony was visited at RIM by Steven Oleksy, who went to Macomb L’Anse Creuse North and was then playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“He found us,” Sarahanne said. “He heard about Anthony’s accident. He and his dad came, and he brought his Stanley Cup ring and brought him a stick.”
Oleksy hung out for a couple of hours.
On Christmas Eve.
A guy who just showed up out of nowhere and made a huge impact.
If that doesn’t sum up the hockey community, how everybody seems to help everybody else, I don’t know what does.
“We just had a really nice visit, a super nice guy,” Sarahanne said.
Olesky gave Anthony a signed photograph.
“Oh, he was a cool guy,” Anthony said. “I think it says a lot about him. It shows how good of a person he is.”
Players from the Dakota hockey team visited Anthony in shifts, so they wouldn’t bombard him with too many people at a time.
Then, the team held its Christmas party at RIM.
“I loved seeing them,” Anthony said. “It was like being back on the ice with them and hanging out.”
On Jan.16, Anthony left RIM for the first time and went to Joe Louis Arena for a Red Wings game.
“Before it, I was nervous,” Anthony said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go. When I was there, it was like, wow, it was a lot of fun. After, I was really happy I went. I got to meet a lot of the guys. It was a lot better than I thought it would be.”
He was able to spend time with defenseman Danny DeKeyser, who had visited Anthony at Beaumont, and several other players in the Red Wings locker room.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Sarahanne said. “It made him more at ease as far as going out. Then, after that, he went to his sister’s hockey game.”
Anthony attended Dakota’s hockey banquet and was given the team’s MVP award, which was re-named in his honor.
“What a fantastic kid he is, how positive he is,” Andonoff said. “He is so bound and determined. With all the love and support he has with his family and friends, Anthony will get through this.”
The team won a regional before losing in the quarterfinals.
“We had a good long run this year and we dedicated everything to Anthony,” Andonoff said. “I’ve been in hockey for 45 years and I’ve honestly never seen anything like that. What I’m happy about is Anthony’s progression so far, his attitude and determination, and the outpouring of support. Everybody has been so kind, considerate and giving.”
Before Anthony could return home, his parents had to modify their split-level home. A ramp was installed. A bathroom was made wheelchair accessible. And a den was turned into Anthony’s bedroom.
Therapists had to teach Anthony’s family how to care for him.
Even Jack, 15, learned how to get Anthony into a car using a slide board.
“Jack was kind of nervous at first,” Sesta said. “He was like, ‘Wait a second. You want me to do this?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, you are going to have to help your brother and you can do this.’ And he does great with the car transfer.”
Anthony returned home April 11 after spending 120 days at RIM.
Now, he is in outpatient therapy, getting treatment every three days. “I’m glad he’s home, but I truly miss him every day,” Sesta said.
Hockey’s helping hand
On April 30, the Red Wings Alumni played a charity game to raise money for Anthony at Fraser Hockeyland. More than 4,000 people showed up.
“It was amazing,” Sesta said. “The whole community coming together to support Anthony. His whole family was there. It was a really nice sight to see everyone come together.”
Anthony’s entire life was represented. There were people from his preschool, his middle school, his high school and his church, as well as therapists and nurses from Beaumont and RIM.
“The culture in the room was so much love and faith and positivity,” Sarahanne said. “There were lines out the door for the concession stand. There was nobody complaining. Everybody was there to support him.”
The event was organized by Alison Reardon, the mother of a Dakota goalie, along with Hockey Has Heart, a nonprofit based in Farmington Hills that was founded by a bunch of hockey moms and hockey dads. Originally, the group came together to raise money for the parent of a hockey player, who needed a heart transplant. They were so effective that they decided to form a non-profit in 2003. The foundation has raised and distributed more than $2 million to almost 70 hockey families.
Hockey Has Heart has only one hard requirement: the person being helped has to have some tie to hockey, even if it’s a loose connection. Maybe, the person played hockey or was a ref. Or maybe, a brother or sister did.
“There has to be some kind of tie,” said Lucy Oakleaf, the charity’s president and founding member, a hockey mom who ended up running a charity. “We are too small to help everybody.”
No one from the organization takes a salary or is compensated, according to Internal Reveuue Service records obtained by the Free Press. And all of the money raised for Anthony goes to Anthony. “If somebody donates $100, the family gets $100,” Oakleaf said.
A few weeks ago, somebody donated a wheelchair-accessible vehicle to Hockey Has Heart, and the organization gave it to Anthony.
“It takes a tremendous amount of money to support these young men who have had these types of injuries,” Oakleaf said. “In the case of Anthony, it will be mind-boggling over his lifetime.”
How amazing is it? That this organization even exists?
There is something special about hockey moms and dads. They have such a strong bond and understanding. Maybe, it’s the shared life of sitting in cold rinks and lugging around all of that equipment and paying those crazy expensive hockey bills. There is way more goodness, than anything else, when it comes to hockey people from the NHL on down.
“There is just a strong tie and a bond in the hockey community,” Oakleaf said. “The Red Wings have been very generous, the Ilitch family, Gordie Howe. Not only them, but Michigan and Michigan State. Over the years, they have all helped us. At one gala, Steve Yzerman spoke and was the guest speaker. We’ve had a lot of people helping us over the years.”
Progress and patience
Anthony continues to make progress. He can sit up and bend over a little. He can move both of his arms but not his wrists. He has a little movement in his fingers.
“I can feel myself trying to close them,” he said. “They might close a little bit. It’s not a lot, but it’s huge progress from where I was.”
In mid-April, Anthony went to prom at Chippewa Valley with a friend. He went out on the dance floor, sporting sunglasses and danced in his wheelchair. “It was different, but it was still a lot of fun dancing with my date,” he said.
Next week, he plans to go to Dakota’s prom, hoping to take a manual chair instead of an electric one, another subtle sign of progress.
As far as school, he is taking online classes to catch up on the semester he missed. “His goal is to finish up his junior year before August,” Sarahanne said. “Then, he will have enough credits where he will be a senior next year.”
Doctors and therapists don’t know how much he will recover.
“You want to see it faster,” his father said. “You want to treat it like a broken arm. Put a cast on it. In six weeks, hey, you are good to go. It’s a lot slower process and you have to be patient. You have to know it’s going to take time. In all the years of hockey that I played and all the people who I know who played hockey, you have never seen an injury like this. You have always seen one or two people who have bumped a leg or sprained an ankle. This was very unique.”
Patience, more than anything, is the key to recovering from this injury. “I’m used to fast pace, but with this injury, nothing is even close to fast,” Anthony said.
Next year is up in the air because it’s not known how much therapy he will be doing.
“My journey has just begun,” Anthony said.
But there is no sadness in his voice.
The Persetto Golf Classic to benefit Anthony Mastronardi
When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. June 17.
Where: Twin Lakes Golf & Swim Club, 455 Twin Lakes Drive, Oakland Township.
Cost: $125 golfer, $500 foursome. Includes 18 holes of golf.
More info: Contact Ron Perfetto at 586-909-7136.