After a nearly fatal injury, Atkinson skates again

As the men’s hockey team makes a late-season surge towards the top half of the Hockey East standings, the Gutterson faithful may be surprised to learn there is an even more remarkable comeback taking place on the team’s fourth line.Chris Atkinson, a redshirt freshman and forward, is continuing to rehab from a gruesome injury that left him sidelined for over a year. It is the reality of the injury that makes his journey back all the more incredible.On Feb. 25, 2006, while playing for the U.S. U-18 National Development team in a matchup at Rochester Institute of Technology, Atkinson’s jugular vein and a major nerve in his neck were severed, leaving him with no movement in his left arm and bleeding profusely onto the ice.The life threatening injury left doubt as to whether he would ever be able to use his left arm again, let alone play hockey.The incident occurred after an RIT player dodged a check from Atkinson’s teammate Trent Palm, sending Palm flying back?wards and his skate directly into the left side of Atkinson’s neck.The play was eerily similar to that which left Florida Panther Richard Zednik’s carotid artery almost completely disconnected in a game last week against the Buffalo Sabres – a bloody play which has left SportsCenter viewers cringing at the sight.”It was a pretty scary sight that brought back some memories for sure,” Atkinson said.Atkinson was rushed with a sense of immediacy after his injury to the nearest hospital to undergo emergency surgery, without which there’s a good chance he might not be here today.Once that was repaired, Atkinson faced a long road to full recovery, which was spearheaded by a 12-hour nerve repair surgery in May 2006 to fix the damaged nerve leading to his left arm.Forced to miss the U-18 World Championships, Atkinson devoted all of his time and energy during his redshirt season of 2006 to rehabilitation in an effort to play his first season with the Catamounts in 2007.”Being out a full year sucked, having to watch all the games from the bench,” Atkinson said.His coach, however, always had faith in him.”I had a strong feeling he would be able to bounce back from the injury and continue his hockey career,” UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon said.”Chris is an amazing young man. He handled the long, at times frustrating rehab, better than I could have imagined.”Atkinson worked rigorously throughout the next year with team trainer Gregg Brueck and strength coach Paul Goodman three to four times a week, while managing to attend every practice. On Oct. 7, 2007, Atkinson’s perseverance and hard work finally paid off when he took the Gutterson Field?house ice in a home scrimmage with Acadia.It was the first time Atkinson had played in a game since his injury over 19 months earlier.”The first game when we played Acadia, I just wanted to get hit,” Atkinson said. “And of course, on the first play, I get popped.”While his arm was still not 100 percent healed, Atkinson’s hockey mentality remained fully intact.”After the first game, instinct kind of just took over,” Atkinson said.Atkinson has provided a spark off the bench for the Catamounts this season, providing a new dimension to the fourth line.”I think I contribute [by] being an energy player,” Atkinson said. “Just being on the ice and playing again is really cool.”Behind the scenes, Atkinson has been a source of inspiration for his fellow teammates.”If one of the guys takes a shot in the knee, he’ll see me and suck it up,” Atkinson said.Though Atkinson has only two assists in 19 games this season, both he and his coach see his role expanding in the future as he continues to strengthen his arm.”[The arm] is going as well as it could, but it’s not quite there,” Atkinson said. “I feel I can do more stuff with the puck than I could just a couple months ago.”Sneddon echoed Atkinson’s words in looking ahead to his improved production for the years to come.”I know he is looking forward to the day when people are asking about his level of play versus the injury and I know that day will come very soon,” Sneddon said. “I think Chris can become a top line player for us in the future as he continues to gain back the necessary skills.”While remaining optimistic about his future career here at UVM, Atkinson is truly satisfied with how far he has come in such a short period of time and is enjoying his time back on the ice.”I’m good as long as I can play,” Atkinson said.Keeping that in mind, Sneddon summed up the resiliency of his player and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his comeback .”I think this is an amazing story about the human spirit and what a person is truly capable of doing when they commit to a goal,” he said.”We are all very proud of Chris and his accomplishments to date.”