Hockey's huge save

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:52 AM ET

Landing in a twisted heap along the boards at East Calgary Twin Arena, Mark Norman wastes little time getting back to his feet.

Steadying himself for another attempt at a crossover drill he once found routine, he soon finds himself slamming back to the ice.

"Each and every time I fall, I think back to the no-quit method of hockey that was taught to me," said the 26-year-old, slowly trying to find his words.

"My coaches' motto was: 'If you fall, get your a-- back up. Don't let hockey beat you.' "

It hasn't. In fact, hockey is his greatest healer.

Ten years ago, Norman's mind was set solely on following a path to the NHL like former Dynastar teammates Mike Comrie and Josh Holden did.

Nowadays, as he continues to recover from a brain injury, his goal is simply to break his record of circling this frigid rink 36 times without stopping or falling.

For a former Mac's midget grinder with the Foothills Bisons, it seems a modest aim. However, it's an ambition that may have saved his soul, according to Neal Sabourin, a Calgary Progressive Lifestyles Foundation caregiver who spends several days a week with Mark.

"This is a hockey story, that's for sure," Sabourin said. "Playing hockey here once a week is one of his reasons to live. It's an inspiration for him. It's what keeps him going."

It was June 1995 when the then-16-year-old was driving home from an exam and inadvertently drove his car into a ditch near his Langdon home while reaching for a CD.

Thrown from the tumbling vehicle, he wound up in an intensive care unit, fighting for six months to emerge from a coma.

"They said if he could say yes, no or even feed himself one day, he'd be lucky," said his mother, Dianne, who has dedicated her life to Mark's recovery.

"The intensity, the will to succeed and the determination that made him the hockey player he was is what has helped Mark get better."

Struggling for years to regain the speech and motor skills he once took for granted, it wasn't until his mother brought him back to the hockey rink that his emotional and physical turnaround took off. With the help of big-hearted rink official Lana McCann, who essentially donated the ice five years ago, hockey returned to being his everything.

"I decided to try him on ice and, when

I did, I thought I ruined him and took away all his good memories," said Dianne, who watched that first skate in agony.

"He couldn't even stand up holding on to the boards. By the end, he was able to take a few steps without falling. A lot of kids would've given up but not Mark."

Nowadays, with the help of Junior A Royals coach Doug Hergenhein -- who coached Mark and younger brother Drew before Kamloops invited them to camp -- Mark can skate backwards, forwards and everything in between, albeit slowly.

"I'm not my old self yet but I'm pretty damn close," said Mark, beaming with pride as he painstakingly pieced together his sentence.

"It's the greatest thing I can do. It's just such a wonderful sport. Dealing with my car accident, hockey was the inner fight that I had to still carry on through my recovery."

The former winger then deadpanned: "I have to put bodychecking on the backburner ... It's unfortunate."

Out on the ice with two other disabled players, Joe Cunningham and Shawn Daley, Hergenhein said there were days Mark would fall 50-60 times in an hour, sometimes requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.

But McCann said he'd brush himself off and get back on his skates.

"He won our hearts big time," said McCann. "He lights up when he walks in here and he always comes in and says thanks."

Armed with sharp long-term memory of his playing days, Mark sent paralysed Red Wings defenceman Vlad Konstantinov a letter of encouragement following his limo accident. In turn, Mark's idol, Don Cherry, sent Mark a letter saying, "with God's help," he'd get through this.

He has, Mom said, thanks to hockey.

"It's probably the best physio he could ever get," said Dianne, whose son dreams of icing a brain-injured team.

"It was his life. He ate, breathed and slept hockey from age 5.

"Now he looks forward to it every week. He doesn't do it as well as he was when he was 16 but at least he's doing it."

Those who say hockey is dead, take a good look at Mark Norman -- the game's never made him feel more alive.


Videos

Photos