Lincoln-Sudbury sophomore skating for a state title two months after open-heart surgery
The call came last November.
“Coach,” the young voice on the other end began. “I just got some news.”
“What’s going on?” asked Hal Gill, in his first season at the varsity boys’ hockey coach at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional.
Gill sensed a tone of urgency in the voice of his sophomore left wing, Owen Toland.
“I thought that he might have suffered a broken hand or some injury,” recalled Gill, who was preparing for the start of preseason work.
“I’m going to have open-heart surgery,” said the 16-year-old Toland.
The words floored the 6-foot-7-inch Gill, who played half of his 16-year NHL career with the Bruins.
Toland told Gill that it might be six weeks into the season before he could play again.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about hockey,’ ” said the coach.
On Jan. 4, Toland underwent heart surgery at Children’s Hospital in Boston. He was sidelined for all 20 games of the regular season.
“About three weeks ago, he said, ‘I might get cleared to play,’ ” said Gill.
If Toland could make it back, it would be for the MIAA Division 2 state tournament.
And that is how it has played out. On March 1, in the first round of the North tournament against Stoneham, Toland scored the decisive goal in a 3-1 win. It was his second shift on the ice.
“It was a great moment,” said Gill. “Not because we scored a goal, because it was Owen.”
Toland’s younger brother, Brendan, a 15-year-old freshman who played on the L-S varsity, called the moment “astonishing. We were all so happy for him.”
Toland recalled being “pretty hyped-up before the game, but I wasn’t nervous. I felt prepared after the practices we’d had.”
And the goal?
“I was standing in front of the goalie,” said Toland, “and he kicked out a slap shot from the point.”
Toland flicked the puck in.
“A one-timer,” said Brendan, the proud brother.
Lincoln-Sudbury will take a 16-6-2 record into Sunday’s Division 2 championship game against Medfield at TD Garden (3:15 p.m.).
“I’m really pumped,” said Toland.
The Toland family story goes some distance beyond hockey and even Owen’s remarkable recovery. It begins with an unspeakable tragedy.
On Christmas Eve 2012, around 11:40 p.m., John Toland collapsed suddenly at the family home in Sudbury. He had turned 49 two days earlier. His wife, Mary, and their four children (Owen is the oldest) tried to revive him.
“We tried CPR. We pressed on his chest,” said Mary. “He wasn’t responding. The police and EMTs came.”
John was transported to Emerson Hospital in Concord, where he was pronounced dead.
Mary Toland asked for an autopsy. Her husband had had a rare heart disease. A virus had invaded his heart. She was told by doctors that there was a 1-in-10 chance her children could have a similar problem.
She wasn’t taking any chances. In 2013, all four children were checked with echocardiograms at Children’s Hospital. The tests revealed a leaking aortic valve in Owen’s heart. But it wasn’t deemed serious. The children were checked annually.
Last year, blood tests indicated that Owen had a growth on one of his parathyroid glands. He had surgery Nov. 5, two months before he underwent the five-hour heart procedure in which the valve was repaired.
“Imagine what he’d been through so young in his life,” said his mother.
Leading up to the heart surgery, Mary said, “We were prepared for the worst.”
She stayed by his bedside. Doctors told her to pack for 11 days. It could be a long stay.
Owen came out of anesthesia vomiting. He spent a few days in intensive care. The entire Lincoln-Sudbury hockey team stopped by Children’s Hospital for a visit, hoping to cheer him up. He was grateful, but in pain.
Still, Owen began to recover a lot faster than anyone figured. Four days after surgery, he was released from the hospital.
He tried to piece together all that had happened. He remembered being at an assembly at the high school on Dec. 18, the last day before the holiday break.
When Owen got up to leave — he estimates he was sitting for 45 minutes — “I got lightheaded,” he said. He went to the nurse’s office.
“My heart was beating 140 times a minute,” he said. “My blood pressure was 160 over 40.” Frightening numbers. He called his mother. Mary picked him up and drove him to his pediatrician. She sent him to Children’s Hospital.
Return to the team
After all he’s been through, Toland never lost touch with his team, even though he couldn’t play.
“He’d ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” said Gill. “He did the video for us. He was at all the practices. Whether he played or not, he was a big part of the team.”
Gill was a voluntary assistant at L-S last season, and head coach Tom Pare told him to watch Toland.
“He said, “That freshman’s pretty good,’ ” Gill recalled. “ ‘He’s going to be awesome.’ ”
Playing on the second line, Toland registered three goals and three assists before breaking his hand Feb. 1, ending his season.
“Owen makes plays like ‘Whoa, did you see that!” said Gill. “There’s an aura about him. When he gets the puck, he controls the play.”
Athletic director Pete Elenbaas, who coached the L-S hockey team before Pare, said, “Owen is going to be a very special player. He’s got great vision and is a great passer.”
After the heart surgery, Toland was cleared to return to school Jan. 22.
“It was a big boost to my confidence,” he said. “I felt better, rested.”
He told Gill that he could return to practice Feb. 11. He couldn’t take part in any contact drills, but Gill wanted him in full pads to get the old feeling back.
“It felt good just to be back on the ice,” said Toland.
On his first day back, the team practiced at 6 a.m., but Gill wanted Owen on the ice earlier.
“He said, ‘We need to get your pace up,’ ” said Toland, who was there at 5:30.
On Feb. 19, he received the green light to have contact.
“I feel great now,” he said. “My comfort level is 8 or 9 out of 10.”
Mary Toland believes the death of her husband saved their son’s life. She would not have had Owen’s heart checked otherwise. Their two other children are also active in athletics. Andrew, 13, is a hockey and lacrosse player. Helen, 11, plays both sports too.
Their father was beloved in town. Coaching three youth sports year after year, he seemed to know everyone not only in Subdbury but in Maynard and Stow as well. Last year, in his honor, Sudbury built a place where kids could skate: the John Toland Memorial Rink.
“We’ve been blessed with incredible community support,” said Mary Toland.
“The last couple of years have been intense. The kids didn’t have a long time with their father, but it was quality time.
“My goal after he died was to redefine the family. My husband is still a part of us. It’s our new normal.”
“It’s been quite a journey,” he said.