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Publish date: Feb 21, 2011

An amazing recovery for Denver ice hockey student-athlete

By Jeff Miller
For NCAA.org

Dr. Mark Levine sometimes wonders why University of Denver students sign up for his 8 a.m. class on real-estate taxation, especially for winter quarter. The east windows in the third-floor classroom of the Daniel College of Business often invite the morning sun to help wake up the 20 or so young minds.

University of Denver senior Jesse Martin.

But at least one of Levine’s students during winter quarter 2011 was almost giddy to arrive for the opening session on Jan. 3.

Senior Jesse Martin, a center on the Pioneers Division I men’s ice hockey team, attended classes that day for the first time since being almost fatally injured in an Oct. 30, 2010 game at North Dakota.

“School is school, but going to school this time is a little different,” Martin said about starting the quarter on time. “That was kind of a sign that I was really going to go through with it.”

Martin, 22, suffered three fractures in the C2 vertebra near his brain stem when he was hit by the Fighting Sioux’s Brad Malone as Martin was passing the puck out of the corner.

Martin laid face down on the ice, unable to move at first. It defied astronomical odds that he survived such an injury. A chip from the vertebra became a wedge that prevented his spinal cord from being severed. It further defied odds that he wasn’t rendered a quadriplegic for life or confined to using a ventilator to breathe.

Jesse Martin Bio

Birthdate: Sept. 7, 1988.

Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta.

Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 165. (180 before injury, reached 150 while hospitalized.)

Position: Center.

Drafted: 2006 in seventh round, 195th overall, by Atlanta.

Favorite player: Steve Yzerman.

High school: Graduated in 2006 with bilingual diploma from St. Francis Xavier High School in Edmonton.

Eleven days and one delicate surgery later, Martin walked two steps from his bed, sat in a chair and walked two steps back in Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. He now deals only with neck pain and numbness in his left arm. One of the hospital’s surgeons compared his situation to winning the Powerball...two or three times.

“It was the best scenario that I could have ever asked for,” said Martin, who is taking three classes this quarter instead of the four he originally planned.

Said Denver coach George Gwozdecky: “Some people have called it lucky, but it was much more. It was miraculous.”

Martin was the first-line center on the defending Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season champions, drafted by the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 in the seventh round. A resident of Edmonton, Alberta, he turned down the opportunity to play Major Junior Hockey in Canada at age 16 to retain the option of playing American collegiate hockey.

The connection with Thrashers general manager Don Waddell proved vital to Martin’s amazing recovery. Martin was transported to a hospital in Minneapolis, where doctors determined that fusion was the only recourse.

Fusion would have left him unable to turn his neck, like being in a neck brace without wearing one. His father, Terry, insisted on getting more opinions, including from the Thrashers’ medical staff.

“We do due diligence in everything else,” said Terry, who works in real estate franchising. “But here, we’re going with only one opinion.”

Doctors in Atlanta and Denver suggested alternatives. On Nov. 8, 2010, Martin had a screw inserted into the damaged vertebra at Regions, one of only five hospitals in North America authorized to perform the procedure.

He was transferred 10 days later to suburban Denver’s Craig Hospital, which specializes in rehabilitation for brain and spinal cord injuries. Martin, wearing a halo device, soon noticed he was the only patient in his physical therapy group who could walk.

Martin was unnerved by that and reluctant to interact with the others until approached by a gentleman who had also suffered a C2 break. The man had taken his annual trip to the beach, was knocked over from behind by a wave while standing in shallow water, landed on his chin and was paralyzed.

Martin feared being the object of a bitter rant. Instead, the man expressed his gratitude that Martin didn’t share his fate and added he wanted the young man to live life to the fullest.

University of Denver senior Jesse Martin back in his playing days as a center on the Pioneers Division I men’s ice hockey team. Rich Clarkson and Associates/NCAA Photos.

“That was something that really hit home,” Martin said.

Pioneers senior captain Kyle Ostrow lives three hours south of Edmonton in Calgary, Alberta, and visited Martin in late December when he’d just traded the halo for a brace. Martin was happy to have a teammate to watch “24/7” and “Due Date” with.

“He was in a lot of pain,” Ostrow said. “Sometimes his neck would seize up. But he’s so positive.”

Martin is involved almost daily with the Pioneers, attending all home games and practices plus doing his rehab exercises while teammates work out. He recounted his story as part of a campus lecture series in late January. When he walked onto the ice during a timeout in a home game in early February to deliver a thank-you address, his time was cut short because the crowd rose and cheered for much of the timeout.

Martin walks gingerly and gets rides to classes whenever possible. Friends and teammates often carry his backpack. He hopes to graduate on time this year with a degree in real estate and construction management.

Martin understands playing hockey again is unlikely, that his game-winning goal in this season’s opener at Vermont should be his last.

But he holds out hope of playing again, of receiving a medical red-shirt.

Unusual? Consider that while in his Minnesota hospital room, he contacted North Dakota’s Malone to tell him he didn’t hold anything against him.

“I heard he was having a hard time with it,” Martin said. “No sense in both of us struggling.”

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer based out of DeSoto, Texas.

Jessie Martin Playing Career

Season Team (League) Games Goals Assists Points
2005-06 Spruce Creek
(Alberta Jr. HL)
40 15 29 44
2006-07 Tri-City
(USHL)
59 19 37 56
2007-08 University of Denver
(WCHA)
41 7 8 15
2008-09 University of Denver
(WCHA)
37 10 13 23
2009-10 University of Denver
(WCHA)
34 14 8 22
2010-2011 University of Denver
(WCHA)
8 1 3 4