Reprieve from the pain

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 12:47 PM ET

Pausing briefly to remind a nurse to inject yet another jolt of morphine into his IV, 15-year-old Michael Blackwell continues introducing the Calgary Flames starting lineup.

Belting out player numbers and names every bit as passionately as 'Dome announcer Beesley, the wheelchair-bound hockey fan peppers it all with a commentary familiar to nurses and patients at the Alberta Children's Hospital U-cluster.

In less than two hours, complications from recent back surgery will send the teen living with cerebral palsy into the operating room for the 20th time in his young life.

Yet, with hockey talk filling a hospital room that seems to find every tube leading to or from him, Michael doesn't appear to have a care in the world.

"He has been in a year of pain and if it wasn't for the distraction of sports..." says his mom, Sharon, unsure how to finish the sentence.

"He likes all sports but his whole world rotates around hockey. It can distract him from his level of pain ... He lives for it."

In a world of athletics dominated by headlines involving politics, corruption, lawsuits, steroid scandals and overpaid, disrespectful sorts, youngsters such as Michael serve as a refreshing reminder of the good that still comes from sport.

Whether he's playing wheelchair hockey in the Calgary Power Hockey League or nestled in bed talking, listening, watching or dreaming about hockey, Michael's all-consuming focus on the game has pulled him through hardships few could fathom, including a hospital record for the longest surgery -- 17 hours -- while having his spine fused last June.

"Things are not easy for Michael," said Sharon, who maintains the same sunny disposition as her son.

"The Stanley Cup playoffs keep him going."

A Flames fan who also happens to love the Oilers, the aspiring broadcaster caused quite a recent stir at the hospital by flagging down every doctor possible in a successful effort to have a surgery date changed, so it wouldn't conflict with an Oilers game.

With increasingly more morphine required for an ailing leg, doctors start to assemble in his room for the imminent surgery to try ridding Michael of the infection that prevented surgeons from sewing up his back almost three weeks ago. When told his idol, Flames Hall of Fame broadcaster Peter Maher, had been reached by phone to hear Michael's version of 'Yeah Baby!' his hazel eyes lit up.

"Can you do me a favour, Mr. Maher?" asked Michael.

"When I'm 21, I was wondering if I could come up and help you out. Give Mike (Rogers) the night off."

People in the local sports community are all role models for Michael, Sharon said.

"Sports helped him develop his verbal skills and it gave him a talking point to engage in social conversation," she said.

Now, they joke, he won't keep quiet.

"Hockey is the greatest," smiled Michael.

"It takes my mind off my back and the pain."

And should remind us all of the beauty of sport.


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