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NHLKristen Cameron: Fighting back

Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 | 12:26 PM

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Kristen Cameron comes from a family with deep roots in P.E.I. hockey. So when the 26-year-old was struck by an impaired driver in a hit-and-run accident, the Island's hockey community rallied to help. And Kristen turned to what she has learned from hockey to motivate her recovery.

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By Nancy Russell

Kristen Cameron comes from a family with deep roots in P.E.I. hockey. So when the 26-year-old was struck by an impaired driver in a hit-and-run accident, the Island's hockey community rallied to help. And Kristen turned to what she has learned from hockey to motivate her recovery.

Kristen Cameron was coaching Division 1 women's hockey at an American college in Erie, Pennsylvania, when she was hit by a car driven by Allen Peters. It was September 12, 2010. She was thrown 15 metres off her bicycle. "I don't remember anything until I woke up in the hospital," recalls Cameron. "I'm glad I don't remember anything. I don't want to remember anything like that."

Her mother, Joanne, remembers. The family raced to Pennsylvania to be there when Kristen woke up. "She was hooked up to tubes all over.

You walk in and see your daughter lying there like that," Joanne recalls. "It was hard for everyone who saw her the first time." After two weeks in hospital in Erie, Kristen was transferred north of the border, first to St. Mike's Hospital in Toronto, then to Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Centre.

"No one ever really came out and said she'd never walk again," Joanne continues. "In the beginning, all you can think about is we want Kristen to walk again. But now it's just if she could have her hands to be more independent, that would be such a big deal right now. The walking thing is secondary now."

Hockey is helping Kristen to recover. "The biggest thing is mental toughness in my recovery. And that's one of the biggest things in hockey too. Once you get to a certain point where you're not focusing on developing skill every day, like when you are more at the college level, mental toughness is a huge part of the game. And being mentally tough is exactly what is helping me through my recovery."

In May 2011, the driver who struck Kristen, Allen Peters, was sentenced to three to six years for aggravated assault while driving under the influence. Kristen and Joanne Cameron admit they were surprised the sentence wasn't more.  "I wish that guy could come and sit here and see what she goes through as part of his sentence," Joanne says.  "To see what he's done. But it doesn't make any difference."

"I was upset with what he got for a sentence," she adds. "But the big thing is to move on and worry about her. Get past that."

The sentencing was one emotional milestone. Another was the one year anniversary of the accident.  "That was something that I definitely had to think about how I was going to attack that day because it definitely had potential to be pretty emotional," Kristen admits. "But I decided to frame it in a positive way. It was easy to do because so many people, so many friends, wrote to me and texted me and called me that day to say you've done so've come so far. It was fine."

As positive as Cameron is, there are difficult moments. She was invited to drop the puck at the Opening Ceremonies at the George Trainor Minor Hockey Tournament in Charlottetown in December. It was the first time she was back on the ice since her accident in September 2010.

"I was crying when I first came out," she explains. "Because I've played there before. So it was really overwhelming at first. It was the first time I was actually physically on the ice and thinking to myself, I'm in a wheelchair. I can't skate anymore.

"But I was honoured and it was nice to get that first out of the way because the next time it will be a lot easier."

Cameron grew up in Charlottetown where she played hockey. Her dad, Brian, is a former president of Hockey P.E.I. and coached several teams. Kristen's uncle Dave Cameron is a former NHL player, with the Colorado Rockies and New Jersey Devils. He also coached Team Canada at the world junior hockey championship and is now behind the bench as an assistant with the Ottawa Senators.

"You'd go to family get-togethers at Christmas and it would be all hockey talk," Kristen jokes. "So of course I wanted to be part of it."

Before the accident, Kristen had discovered that she, like her uncle, has a passion for coaching hockey. She moved from P.E.I. to New Hampshire at 17 to attend a prep school. She then went to Bowdoin College, where she realized she wanted to go into coaching. In 2009, she moved to Erie, Pennsylvania to work with a top notch Division I program.

"I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. Exactly what I was good at. I was just figuring out exactly what I should be doing. And then I had my accident. So that was kind of tough. At the same time I know what I should be doing. I just have to figure out how I'm going to do it.

"A lot of the aspects of coaching are talking to people," she continues. "So much more than the xs and os part. And even that I can still do. I have a feeling I will be somewhere where the setting and the time is right, with the right people. It will fall into place. I just love it. "

Now Kristen Cameron's life revolves around regaining as much independence as she can. And Prince Edward Islanders have been there to support her in her recovery.

The Kristen Cameron Benefit Hockey Game featured the UPEI Panthers men's hockey team versus the alumni. Kristen's father, Brian, uncles and a cousin Connor all played for the university. There have also been numerous fundraisers in the American communities where Kristen played hockey and coached. And in the Cameron family's home community of Kinkora, they even organized Kristen Cameron Week.

"It's hard to put in words. It's so unique," Kristen says with a smile. "P.E.I. is a unique spot and Islanders are unique. The amount of support has been so big. That doesn't happen everywhere."

Kristen Cameron does hours daily of physio and occupational therapy, as well as "wheelchair skills" as an outpatient now. "I really like physio. I really like having a goal to work towards. I love working out and being physically active. Trying to gain as much function back as I can. It's like a game to me."

"I like wheeling in and seeing everyone," she adds. "It's social too."

She has been able to travel to hockey and football games in the States, and even tried gliding through a program called "Freedom Wings", designed for people with disabilities. She has a new special skills dog named Fido. And over Christmas, Kristen travelled back to Prince Edward Island for the first time.

Her mother Joanne has been living with Kristen in Toronto, where they watch a lot of hockey and try to get to Maple Leafs games when they can.

"I knew she was strong but I never thought anybody could be this strong. She amazes me. She gets up every day and faces the same ordeal. She always has that happy voice. There are days, granted, we have our bad days but we get through it. She's an inspiration big time for me."

Kristen Cameron is learning to accept that she is an inspiration.

"Especially when I'm down, when I have bad days, and I think about people that are inspired by me...especially people that don't know me that is more motivating than anything. Just to know that I inspire people. That makes me get through my tough days for sure."

And Kristen Cameron has some new goals for 2012. "If I could do a triathlon that would be awesome because that's what I was trying to do before I had my accident. I think it would be cool to be able to say I did it."

And hockey? "I don't know yet. I think some people thought that I would try to get back into it this year but it's just not on my radar yet," she explains. "Because it's such a big part of me that I don't know yet how it's going to fit into my so-called "new life". But I know it will. I have a pretty good feeling that I will coach down the road. I'm just going to have to be creative about how I go about it. But I think I will."

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