The ice hockey community is truly a unique one. Among its greatest traits is its innate ability to rally, rise up and take care of its own. Unassuming, unselfish and without question, when called upon there is perhaps no greater family on earth.
In January of 2014, Mike Nichols, a senior forward on the Monroe Township ice hockey team, suffered a debilitating neck injury when he fractured his C-5 vertebrae in a high school ice hockey game in New Jersey. Despite being unable to lace 'em up and take to the ice, his spirit, his passion and love for the game has not wavered. He is #MikeyStrong, a reluctant ambassador of the game, a voice and a symbol of hope for hundreds afflicted with spinal cord injuries.
In the quest to find a cure, Nichols' story has transcended borders, reaching further than anyone could have imagined -- all thanks to the overwhelming support from a hockey community that continues to support him -- and his cause -- unconditionally.
That outpour continued last night as the New Jersey Devils, in association with CBS' WFAN radio personalities "Boomer and Carton" and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, played host to the 3rd Annual MikeyStrong Charity Game at Prudential Center in Newark.
"It's very easy to fall in love with who he is -- his story. This is an extension of the ice hockey community and Mikey is the most instrumental one of all of us," co-host Boomer Esiason said. "When he came into the studio, he blew us away with the way he was handling his situation literally six months after it took place. When he left, we were in tears. We have sons of our own. The thing about Mikey -- he always says thank you -- he is always so appreciative.
"To play hockey and do it for such a great cause, in this building with this collection of players, is fun but the reality is Mikey is still in that chair," Esiason said. "There is nothing quite like the hockey community. Not only here in New Jersey, but everywhere in the world. The hockey players and the community that supports them -- there is truly nothing like it. It's been really amazing. This will go on as long as we can do it and get the support."
After two seasons in Middletown, the Devils took the initiative and brought the event center-stage, assembling a prestigious, international roster of men and women from four countries, an impressive collection of players spanning 15 Stanley Cup years with 24 Stanley Cup rings in all.
Devils' Alumni Aaron Asham, Doug Brown, Kenny Daneyko, Bruce Driver, Patrik Elias, John MacLean, Grant Marshall, Bryce Salvador, Colin White and Marek Zidlicky joined fellow NHL alums Glenn Anderson Rick DiPietro, Tie Domi, Alexei Kovalev, Tom Laidlaw, Brian Mullen, Marty Reasoner, Kevin Westgarth at this year's event.
"It's great. Boomer told me about the cause and if I'm able to help out just a little and make this successful, I'm happy to support the cause," Richards, a member of the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, said. "To see all the guys come out and support, I'm sure it means a lot to Mikey."
Michelle Picard, a member of the NWHL's New York Riveters who also won Silver with Team USA at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, was equally as delighted to support Nichols and the Reeve Foundation, which is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury by funding innovative research and improving the quality of life for individuals living with paralysis.
"I'm so honored to be here. When I was asked to play it was a no-brainer for me to say yes," Picard said. "To know what this game means to Mikey and in general helping to improve the lives of people is so inspiring. It doesn't matter how old you are, whether you're a man or woman or what team you play for, everyone comes together and that's what makes this game so special. Yeah, it's a hockey game but it's so much more than that."
Goals set in terms of attendance and monetary donations raised have exceeded expectations as more and more support continues to roll in even after the festivities concluded Friday night.
"From the beginning, the Devils have been great to me and the cause. From Day One, they reached out to me and my family. They were there for me from the get-go," Nichols said. "Even when I was in the hospital, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, they were there for me. It's a testament to their character. They remain committed in the community.
"This event was amazing," Nichols said. "I'd like to thank the Devils, Boomer and Carton, all the players who came out, donated and supported this event. Without them it wouldn't be possible."
In addition to their $20 donation at the door, attendees received ticket vouchers from the New Jersey Devils and New York Yankees toward a future game.
"3,000 people pulling together on a Friday night -- this is why we do what we do -- to try make a difference in people's lives," Jim Leonard, the Devils' Senior Vice President of Government Relations and Foundations, said. "Mike is overwhelmed. He's a Rangers fan, but tonight and almost every night he's a Devils fan. His personality, his drive, his ability to do everything he can to move forward with the struggles he's had -- he's an amazing young man and we're honored to have him here tonight.
"The program began in Middletown but it grew out of the space it had," Leonard said. "Being able to come to Prudential Center is a perfect opportunity for us to continue to grow this program. More people can see what is going on the ice, understand what Mike is going through and more importantly what the Reeve Foundation offers in terms of helping people with paralysis."
On the ice, Team Boomer defeated Team Carton by a score of 8-6. Glenn Anderson's goal, assisted by Brad Richards with 8:00 remaining in the second stanza, proved to be the game-winner.
Anderson, who won six Stanley Cups including five with the Edmonton Oilers, finished with a hat trick. Alexei Kovalev scored twice and Michael Kantnor and Kevin Westgarth also scored in support of goaltender Rick DiPietro for Team Boomer. Will Reeve, the son of the late Christopher Reeve, scored twice for Team Carton, which also got goals from Doug Brown, Grant Marshall, Tom Collingham and Aaron Asham.