'This is not the end': Sledge hockey Paralympian shares hope, experience with injured Humboldt Broncos

Kevin Rempel knows what it's like to be told you may not walk again. So when the Toronto resident heard Saskatchewan Broncos bus crash survivor Ryan Straschnitzki is already talking about pursuing sledge hockey, he wanted to offer encouragement — along with frank insights into the reality of recovery.

Message from Kevin Rempel, who fought to walk again, gives insights into the road ahead after traumatic injury

Canadian Paralympian Kevin Rempel placed his sledge hockey sticks on the balcony of his Toronto condominium in memory of the Humboldt Broncos players, coaches and volunteers who were killed. Rempel was eventually able to walk again after being paralyzed in a motocross accident in 2006, but continues to suffer pain and never regained full function after his injury. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Kevin Rempel looks directly into the video camera set up on the table in his Toronto condominium, periodically choking back tears as he speaks to a group of young hockey players he has never met, but with whom he feels a connection.

Rempel, 35, is a former Paralympian who played para ice hockey — commonly called sledge hockey — for Team Canada. Like many Canadians, he was devastated by the news of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan last Friday that has left 16 people dead and 13 injured.

But unlike many Canadians, Rempel knows first-hand how it feels to wake up in a hospital room and be told he would likely never walk again — a reality 18-year-old Broncos defenceman Ryan Straschnitzki now faces.  Straschnitzki, who is from Airdrie, Alta., remains in a Saskatoon hospital. 

Specific details about the injuries sustained by the other players still in hospital have not been publicly released.

"I've been in that super-dark place not knowing what's going to happen with your life or the lives of others around you," Rempel told CBC News. "I can picture to some degree what it's like in their shoes of just being in the hospital room and everyone's life has changed."

Paralympian Kevin Rempel, who suffered a spinal cord injury, recorded a video message for the Humboldt Broncos recovering in hospital. 0:42

Rempel was paralyzed from the waist down in a motocross accident in 2006, when he was 23. He has "incomplete" paraplegia, because his broken vertebrae didn't sever his spinal cord. 

"I was fortunate," he said. After a year of intense rehabilitation — starting with wiggling one toe after six weeks — he was able to learn to walk again. He still has intense pain and never regained the ability to play sports requiring exertion on his legs.  

Right after his injury, he didn't know what his future would hold as he went through the stages of hospitalization and rehabilitation. When he heard Straschnitzki is already expressing an interest in sledge hockey, Rempel wanted to reach out to him — as well as his injured teammates and their families — to offer support and insight. 

So on Tuesday, Rempel recorded a video message, containing both encouragement and honest details about the physical and emotional challenges Straschnitzki — and others dealing with a critical injury — could expect in the coming days, weeks and months.   

"There will be days that you want to call it quits," Rempel said in his video message. 

"But there's always another day. Your family, your friends and ... your community will help you get through this.

"The town of Humboldt, the province of Saskatchewan, our country of Canada and of course the entire hockey community is here and we want to help you. So, just know you're not alone."

Rempel remembers the exhausting blur of activity when he was in hospital — from nurses coming in with bedpans to family visits — while he was trying to process what had happened to him.  

"You're just barely getting through the day and trying to eat and stay awake," he said. 

In his video message, Rempel noted it's a traumatic time for family members too — an experience he also knows intimately.  In a bizarre coincidence, his father became a paraplegic after falling out of a tree about four years before Rempel's accident.  

"Over the next several months ... realistically, there's going to be a long transition period of adjusting to your new lives of living with someone in the household who has a disability and learning ... how you can best support them," he said.

"You can't, like, necessarily, take the pain away for someone, so just being there for them is the best thing."

Kevin Rempel included his sledge hockey stick tribute in a video message he recorded for the Humboldt Broncos. 1:39

Rempel also described the unexpected physical consequences, in addition to paralysis, of his injury — from pain medication side-effects that made him agonizingly sensitive to sound, to the impacts on his bowel and bladder function. 

He also spoke about the frustration he felt as he worked through the rehabilitation process.  

"When I was going through my recovery, I was asking my therapist, like, 'How do I get better?' And the words he said to me is that, 'You just have to try.' And I wanted to punch him in the face," Rempel said in the video. 

"Because I'm like, 'What the hell kind of an answer is that, man? I'm like, what do you mean you just have to try? Of course you have to try.'"

'Keep going'

Despite his annoyance, there was truth in that advice — and that leads to another message Rempel hopes he is able to convey to the Humboldt players.   

"Just keep going," he said. "Things will get better. Because it seems bleak right now, but this is not the end.  This is just the beginning of you rebuilding what will eventually become your new life."

For Rempel, sledge hockey helped him do just that. And once Straschnitzki is on the road to recovery, Rempel has an offer for him and any of his fellow hockey players who are interested in trying out the sport.  

"I just want to let you boys know that, whenever you're ready, let me know," he said. 

"I've got a whole bunch of gear. I would love to fly it all out there and help you get on the ice and play some sledge hockey in Saskatchewan."

About the Author

Nicole Ireland

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.