When Walleye defenseman Simon Denis nearly lost his ability to walk after suffering a serious neck injury in college, it changed the young hockey player's outlook on life.
Denis was nearly paralyzed when he was hit from behind on Nov. 1, 2013, early in his junior season at Ferris State University. After nearly a full year of physical therapy, Denis returned to the ice with a greater appreciation for life and a drive to help others through charity work.
Denis, who is in his second season with the Walleye, has established a charity-based clothing business. The 26-year-old from British Columbia said the serious brush with a life-altering injury led to his creation of “Be Yourself Apparel.” The clothing brand company donates 25 percent of all sales to charity.
“I had a new outlook on life after my injury,” Denis said. “It allowed me to realize that hockey is not everything and that you have to do things for the greater good and for others. I was counting my blessings that I could not only play hockey but also the doctors were telling me it was a miracle I could still walk. So I want to make a difference. That injury took it to a whole new level.”
The injury occurred on a routine play, he said.
“I was just going back for the puck. I got pushed from behind and the guy fell right over the back of me and caused my entire body to fold,” Denis said. “I knew something was wrong right away. I immediately had pain in my neck, but I didn't realize how bad it was until I got to the hospital. Doctors told me it was a miracle I wasn't paralyzed. That is when it kicked in for me how bad it was.”
The check nearly broke the young defenseman's neck.
“I was lucky to still be walking — to be able to move my feet and hands,” he said. “It was mind-blowing. But over time, the doctors were fairly confident I would have an opportunity to play again. The surgery was very successful.”
Simon Denis (pronounced SEE-moan DEN-EE) would fully recover and played his final college season in 2015-16 when he caught the eye of the Walleye coaching staff. Former Ferris State teammates Scott Czarnowczan and Kyle Bonis, who went on to play for Toledo, encouraged Denis to start his pro career with the Walleye.
“I could not have asked for a better situation,” Denis said. “I absolutely love being here.”
As a rookie last season, Denis led all Walleye defensemen in scoring. He posted 55 points in 70 games with 15 goals and 40 assists. He also was nominated for the ECHL's Community Service Award.
Walleye coach Dan Watson said Denis has exceeded expectations. Denis, who has four points in his first eight games this season, is currently on the injured reserve list for a Toledo team that is off to a solid start (7-2-2), leading the ECHL Central Division.
“You cheer for him,” Watson said. “He's a guy you root for to get opportunities, whether it's in hockey or in growing his business. He's always been part of the community. He's always wanting to do the promotional stuff. He loves to go to the schools and go to the hospitals.”
Denis became painfully familiar with grueling hospital stays after his neck injury. He spent three days meeting with doctors while undergoing a battery of tests.
“That's when the severity of it kicked in. I went into a bit of a panic mode realizing what was going on,” he said.
Denis eventually underwent spinal fusion surgery on his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae.
“They took a cadaver bone and put it between the two and fused it together,” he said. “I have a plate and two screws in my neck, and those will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
He was in a neck brace for the next three months and endured nearly 10 months of physical therapy.
“At first I was just trying to get some motion back,” he said. “I almost had to reteach my body how to function. Your back and neck control everything. It was quite a process. The thing that really drove me was all the support and outreach I had from my girlfriend, family members, and friends.”
With a permanent smile on his face, Denis has easily grown into a fan favorite in Toledo with his affable demeanor. And then in the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs, that support proved critical when his resolve was tested again.
Kalamazoo captain Ben Wilson viciously cross-checked Denis after a seemingly harmless play in Game 2 of the Central Division semifinals April 15. The stunning outburst forced Denis to miss the next eight games. Wilson received a 20-game suspension for forcefully striking Denis seven times across his back with his stick.
Denis said his parents were watching the game live on the internet back in Burnaby, British Columbia, and were horrified.
“It was a situation because of my previous injury, people were really worried and rightfully so,” he said. “In the moment I didn't know what was going on. I knew I was getting hit. But I didn't realize the magnitude of it until I saw it on video later. That was not a hockey play.”
Watson said it was a tough pill to swallow.
“But he loves the game of hockey and as long as he can play it, he will play it,” Watson said. “With him, there's a lot of doors that can be opened through the game of hockey. He's not going to quit because of these setbacks. He'll continue to push and get better.”
Watson said he hopes Denis will someday be promoted to the American Hockey League.
Denis, who said he has moved on from the incident, came up with the idea to start the clothing line in the summer. He officially launched byapparelclub.com the first week of September.
“I had the model where I wanted to do something to also donate money towards charity,” he said. “I wanted to raise money for good causes.”
Denis said Be Yourself Apparel works with four main charities with a fifth that is rotated in each month. This month the company is working with the Movember charity, which raises awareness about prostate cancer through a mustache growing campaign.
Watson said Denis embraces social media.
“I know his major was [communications] and he's doing something with that as well as playing hockey,” Watson said. “I know it's not a 9-to-5 job, but it's one that can keep him busy after practice and during the day.”
Denis said his teammates have supported the projects, which he works on three days a week. The inventory includes T-shirts, hoodies, and hats with differing styles.
“Everyone has been very receptive,” he said. “It all goes to a great cause. The ultimate goal is to raise as much money as we can for charity.”
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