Pictou Advocate sports

Hockey mishap didn’t stop Kevin Murphy


When Kevin Murphy was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for the Eastern Shore riding in the 2013 provincial election, he made a comment that really caught my attention.

Anybody, he said from his wheelchair, can overcome physical disabilities “to achieve anything at all.”

He was speaking from personal knowledge.

That observation came 28 years, six months and 21 days after I witnessed what was the worst hockey tragedy I had ever seen.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in 1985 — a Sunday afternoon — and I was sitting in the stands at Cole Harbour Place during the Bantam B championship final in the March Break Hockey Tournament.

The 14-year-old Murphy was playing for the Eastern Shore Mariners. He had inherited a passion for hockey from his dad Ralph, who had been a goaltender for many years.

When the tournament began that week, Kevin was just one more young star playing hockey for just one more team. A few days later, he was a statistic — the kind of statistic everyone fears.

Kevin had a dream — a kid’s dream — to someday play for the Montreal Canadiens. That afternoon he was nearing the end of his seventh season in minor hockey. He had arrived at the rink with hopes of being on a winning club.

The accident that changed his life forever occurred with no warning.

He lost his balance and fell head-first into the boards. He would never play hockey again. He would never walk again. He had suffered a spinal cord injury, instantly becoming a quadriplegic.

Prior to the game, I had no idea who Kevin Murphy was.

At that stage in my career, I was specifically covering minor sports in the metro region and writing three columns a week called On the Minor Scene. With two sons in minor hockey then, I was watching many players playing the sport.

Suddenly, Kevin was no longer just another teenager with a pair of skates and a hockey stick. He was in my thoughts that night and I’ve been following his life’s achievements with interest all these years.

The column I wrote following the accident began this way: “The story of Kevin Murphy is more than just another sports article. It is a story that reminds us — all of us — how uncertain our place on earth can be.

“One can be enjoying all the finer things of life, including good health, at the same time looking optimistically to the future. Yet ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,’ all can be changed.”

I went on to say that “the horror that changed Kevin’s life left him paralyzed from the neck down. He simply fell, his head striking the boards.”

The diagnosis: He had cracked the fifth vertebrae in his neck.

A teammate who was on the ice when Kevin was injured, and has remained a close friend through the years, called it “a freak accident that even a suit of armour wouldn’t have protected him from going in head first.”

How many times do we, as hockey parents, worry when we see a son or daughter, or any player, crashing into the boards? It’s a sight that alarms us on every occasion that it happens. Just part of the game, they say — the ‘they’ referring to almost anybody who follows the sport.

One more extract from that long-ago column: “It was a tragedy in every sense of the word, an incident that understandably shocked everyone — but it was also fate.”

Some time after the accident, I spent a morning with the Murphys at their home in Musquodoboit Harbour, chatting with Kevin’s mom and dad. As his mother Judy told me, “The world can’t stop because one child got hurt.”

It didn’t stop in Kevin’s case.

In 1986, the year after the injury, the Cole Harbour association created a trophy named after Kevin, to be awarded each year to the tournament’s most sportsmanlike player in the Bantam B division.

His playing days, understandably, were over — but he went on with his life.

In 1992, he graduated from Saint Mary’s University with a bachelor of commerce degree. He operated small businesses on the Eastern Shore, volunteered in his community, while he and his wife Stephanie watched daughter Rachel and son Jackson playing minor hockey. Rachel is now in Grade 12, Jackson in Grade 10.

A decade or so ago, the Kevin Murphy Hockey Fund was established to award bursaries to “outstanding youth who display an incredible amount of commitment at the arena and in the classroom, and community involvement outside of hockey.”

It was an ideal way to keep Kevin in a hockey role.

As busy as he was, Kevin opened another chapter in his life — getting into the political arena at the age of 43. He was a Liberal and, with Stephen McNeil looking to win an election, Murphy’s name was on the ballot in the Eastern Shore constituency.

Kevin won big, almost doubling the vote total of the runner-up. He was suddenly a politician in Halifax instead of living his childhood dream in Montreal.

The Liberals formed the government and McNeil chose the newcomer in the wheelchair to be the speaker of the legislature. That made him the first paraplegic to serve in that capacity.

Four years later, McNeil took the Liberals into another election and, with the party returning to power, Murphy continued to serve as the House speaker.

I’ve found it intriguing as I admired Kevin’s activities through the years, following his career day by day, year by year.

And what does he think of his achievements?

His assessment of his own comeback story was best explained by this undated remark: “I’m just the same as everybody else. I just happen to use a wheelchair.”

It’s no surprise, you see, that he’s been a winner in every game he’s played away from the ice.