The treasure that Travis Roy left behind, beyond the millions of dollars he helped raise for aid and research related to spinal cord injuries, was the spirit of his enduring courage, his quick pivot from personal tragedy to a quarter-century of purpose.
“He did more for people in his 25 years in a wheelchair,” Jack Parker, the legendary Boston University hockey coach, said Friday, some 24 hours after Roy’s passing, “than if he’d been a 20-year NHLer.”
Roy, 45, died in a Vermont hospital on Thursday, following complications from recent surgeries meant to help him improve quality-of-life issues related to his quadriplegia.
Then a 20-year-old BU freshman, Roy’s hockey career abruptly ended 11 seconds into his first shift on the night of Oct. 20, 1995, his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae crushed as he tumbled awkwardly into the rearboards at Walter Brown Arena.
Roy’s check on North Dakota defenseman Mitch Vig was straight up and clean, the fall random, the consequences devastating.
“But dad, I made it,” the paralyzed Roy told his father, Lee, in the moments immediately after the mishap, Lee rushing onto the ice from the arena stands.
Years later, in an interview with Canadian television reporter Christine Simpson, an emotional senior Roy added, “He did [make it] — short lived, that’s all. He deserved a lot more.”
It was soon after returning to BU in the fall of 1996, guiding his wheelchair with a right hand able to maneuver a joystick, that Roy founded the charity in his name. To date, the Travis Roy Foundation has raised upward some $9 million — half the funds earmarked as direct grants to help individuals cope with injury, half to fund research aimed at quicker recoveries and possible cures for those with spinal cord trauma.
Parker, who retired as the Terriers' coach in 2013, lived on Bay State Road, only a couple doors down from Roy’s dorm, when his former winger returned to campus in ’96. The pair immediately began meeting once a week for dinner, Roy in 2000 earning an undergraduate degree in communications.
It was one of those autumn nights as the two chatted outside Roy’s dorm, Parker recalled on Friday, when a disconsolate Roy was briefly overcome with emotion.
“A nice fall night, and we were in front of his dorm, I’m on a bench and he’s in his chair,” recalled Parker. “All of a sudden he starts crying. And I never saw him cry after that, ever. He was saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen . . . I am never going to find anything in my life that I love as much as I loved hockey . . . nothing will replace the passion that I had for hockey . . . I’m 20 years old and I feel like there is nothing left.’”
The night of the accident, the BU team doctor, just back from the hospital, updated Parker with the somber news of Roy’s condition midway through the second period. After the game, the coach walked into the dressing room, where his players only wanted to know how their fallen brother was doing.
“Sit down,” Parker told them.
He told them of a book, “The Road Less Traveled,” by Dr. M. Scott Peck. He recited the opening line, “Life is difficult.”
“And then I said to them, ‘Let me tell you something,’ ” recalled Parker, “ ‘Travis Roy’s life, his family’s life . . . even our lives, but nowhere near to their level . . . all just got more difficult. And you’ve got to be prepared for it.’ ”
Those months later, with the sobbing Roy at his side on Bay State Road, Parker had to craft another message.
"I said, ‘Travis, God doesn’t close one door without opening another — you’ll find something,’ ” Parker said. “And he found the Travis Roy Foundation.”
Roy’s consistent message during his two-plus decades of public speaking was one of optimism, reminding everyone to make the most of their assets, not to dwell on the “what if” but the “what is” and the “what can be.” This from someone forced to begin each day for a quarter-century with a hired caregiver spending two hours to bathe and dress him.
“There are times in life when we choose our challenges,” he once told an audience at one of his many speaking gigs. “And there are times when challenges simply choose us. It’s what we do in the face of those challenges that defines who we are — more importantly, who we can and will become.”
One of Roy’s first public speaking appearances, a little more than a year after his injury, was at the Globe’s annual All-Scholastic dinner. A nervous Roy nearly backed out the morning of the fete, but he ultimately arrived and soldiered through, to the delight of hundreds of high school athletes gathered inside the ballroom of a downtown hotel.
“Afterwards, he was swarmed by the kids,” recalled ex-Globe editor/writer Bill Griffith. “It was a lot like Ted Williams being surrounded by the MLB All-Stars at Fenway Park. A special moment in my life. A bit of my soul left with his passing [Thursday].”
After two recent surgeries in Boston, said Parker, Roy opted to leave the city to be at home alongside Lake Champlain in Vermont. His parents lived next door. Parker sensed his ex-winger knew his remaining days were at hand.
“He wanted to look at the lake,” mused Parker. “He wasn’t up there three days and they rushed him to Burlington Hospital . . . and never got home. All from complications . . . the chair does that to you, you know?”
Travis Matthew Roy was surrounded by family, including his sister Tobi, in his final moments, said Parker. According to Parker, Lee Roy told him Roy’s sister offered her hockey-loving brother some final words of comfort.
“Just an unbelievable statement,” said Parker. “She leaned into him, knowing it was imminent that he’d slip away, and she leaned in and said, ‘Trav, your line’s up next.’ ”