'I'm going to get out of my chair': Injured Manitoba hockey player determined to walk again

'I'm going to get out of my chair': Injured Manitoba hockey player determined to walk again

After he was paralyzed during a Manitoba Junior Hockey League game two years ago, Braden Pettinger said he wanted nothing to do with the game he loved. But now, he hopes to one day help young players.

Pettinger, now 22, was paralyzed after falling into the boards while battling for the puck during his first game with the Portage Terriers in November 2015. He's been in a wheelchair since and is now in rehabilitation in Regina with the hope of one day walking again.

"It's been a roller coaster, I guess," said Pettinger in an interview with CBC News from Regina. "There's been some lows, there's been some highs."

"It's a pretty big adjustment," he said. "As time goes on, you learn to do things better. You learn to do things you weren't sure you were able to do."

Pettinger fractured his C5 vertebra in his neck in several places. Doctors initially told him he'd be confined to his wheelchair for the rest of his life, but he refuses to accept that fate. 

"They might have a different opinion ... but I think I'm definitely going to be out of this chair one day," he said.

Pettinger attends First Steps Wellness Centre in Regina, where he does physical therapy five days per week.

But on weekends, he still comes back home to Elgin, Man., a small village about 230 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. He's also started taking online courses through the University of Manitoba.

"It's a long road," he said, adding that even though his progress has been slow, he's starting to get stronger in his core, triceps and his legs but isn't nearly ready to give up his chair yet. "Its a really slow process."

Pettinger said he hopes to see considerable progress in the next six months.

More than $150K in donations 

He said support and well-wishes his family have received over the last two years have kept him going.

"It's encouraging all the time," he said. "There's a lot of times when I get down and things are frustrating … but you look at all the people who believe in me and who have supported me and donated money so I'm able to do these things … so I'm able to do better and improve my function."

In October, the Waywayseecappo Wolverines invited Pettinger and his family out to drop the puck at one of the team's games. They also gave him a $5,000 donation.

"It was really nice getting back there and seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen in a while … old billets, people at the rink, people in the community," said Pettinger. "A lot of guys I played with came out to the game."

"It was a good night, really thankful for what they did there with the donation they made … and the response from the fans there."

In the wake of his injury, Pettinger and his family were given more than $150,000 in donations, raised though fundraisers, socials and other avenues. 

"I consider myself very lucky, really," he said. "It's unbelievable … from like all the things that I can do, the multiple hours per day [of therapy], the stem cell treatment. I consider myself really lucky. I'm thankful for that." 

"If its wasn't for all the money that was raised by people and donated me, I'd be on a pretty tough situation right now," he said.

However Pettinger said he and his family have been disappointed with Hockey Canada since his accident, saying communication surrounding the organization's insurance policy has been lacking.

"They haven't been fair, they haven't been morally correct… I feel the need to say that just because people in the future who are in the same situation I am."

For its part, Hockey Canada called Pettinger's incident unfortunate and said they provide one of the best insurance policies in Canadian sport. 

"A review of the incident determined that this was an unfortunate accident," a Hockey Canada spokesperson told CBC News.

Missing independence 

Pettinger still thinks about the day he got injured from time to time. He said he remembers the day leading up to the game and the game itself until the fall. But he chooses not to dwell on it. 

"There's no point in thinking about things I could have done differently," he said. "It happened." 

Asked what he's missed the most since his injury, Pettinger said his independence.

"I mean … just being a normal 22-year-old guy," he said. "Hanging out with your friends all the time, going to parties, being social, just being independent really."

"Hockey is ways down the list of the things I miss."

He said his injury has also given him a new outlook on life.

"My frustrations before my injury seems pretty petty and small compared to the ones I have now," he said. 

Pettinger, who first started playing the game when he was three years old, said he wanted nothing to do with the game after his injury and didn't even want to it on TV afterwards. But he's starting to come around. An avid Winnipeg Jets fan, he now wants to get back into the game to help young players in some way.

"I want to get involved with hockey again," he said. "Maybe with a coaching role … made a development role."

"I see the game a lot different now … from systems to guys individually. When I played hockey, I didn't watch a lot of hockey outside the rink."

'Stay positive'

His message for others facing similar situations and injuries, "stay positive I guess," said Pettinger.

"Know that you've got an opportunity to get better. When you're first injured, the doctors, they tell you a lot of things. They tell you you're going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life," he added. "I am pretty confident and the fact that I think I'm going to get out of my chair is big asset to me."

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