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Droschak: Borer's Long Road to Recovery

by David Droschak / Carolina Hurricanes
In the second of a two-part series, feature writer David Droschak takes a look back one year after the bus crash of the Albany River Rats, the minor league affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. Click here to read Part 1.

Part 2: Borer's long road to recovery

It has been one of those years for the Carolina Hurricanes. Losing early, coupled by a rash of injuries have resulted in a revolving door between the big club and members of the team’s top minor league affiliate, the Albany River Rats.

On defense alone, Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney and Jay Harrison have been called upon at various times this season to share the D-load. One name has been conspicuously missing from the farmhand fill-ins – Casey Borer. 

The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, a third-round pick in a 2004 draft that included Andrew Ladd, Justin Peters and Carson for the Canes, was the team’s brightest young hope along the blue line. He played 11 games with the Canes in 2007-08 and shined, and was called up for spot duty again a year later.

Borer was set to receive a hard look at the team’s upcoming training camp after putting in a solid season in Albany. Then came the team’s bus crash last February that sent Borer’s career and life into a tailspin of doctor visits and anxious moments. 

Borer broke his neck in the accident, the most serious of the four players and Albany radio announcer who were injured along an icy Massachusetts highway. He would spend the next nine months in-and-out of neck collars, surgeon’s offices and hoping beyond all hope to return to a game he dearly loves.

“For those guys it’s a great opportunity,” Borer said when asked about Carson, Rodney and Harrison. “Those guys are my buddies and you are always happy to see them succeed. I really don’t think about it that much because when those guys were called up I was sitting at home in a neck brace, and I don’t think there is very much demand in the National Hockey League for that. I don’t think they need couch holders.

“I’m sure it crossed my mind that it could have been me a couple of times. I am envious, but it’s out of my control. At the same time I’m just glad to play and just try to get better and some day get back to the NHL. We’re all very lucky to be alive and that’s what I remember every day.” 

Borer was one of 29 players, coaches and team staff on a bus headed home from Lowell to Albany on a snowy winter night last February when in an instant he went from prospect to praying for a positive outcome.

Borer was sleeping when the bus went out of control.

“I just remember waking up in mid-air and I was flying across the bus to the other side,” Borer said. “I hit my head and I looked down and saw Dwight Helminen’s foot was bleeding and guys were strewn everywhere. I remember someone yelling from the front of the bus for everyone to get off because we were still in the middle of the road. So, everyone just scrambled. I remember climbing out of the top and guys were yelling to get away from the bus, so we ran and I laid down in the snow because I couldn’t hold up my head.”

“Casey was two seats behind me, just sleeping across the seats like anyone does and the tragic thing was he didn’t have time to get his hands up and his head hit,” Patrick Dwyer said.

Borer alternated leaning on the guard rail and roommate Mark Flood during the snowstorm at 3 a.m. until emergency vehicles arrived some 30 minutes later on the dark interstate. 

“It didn’t even register in my mind that my neck could be broken,” Borer said. “I was in a lot of pain, but I just thought people get whiplash from car accidents all the time and you hear how painful it is, so I thought it’s probably just whiplash. I remember moving my neck around, trying to loosen it up and stuff, not even thinking that.

“We all kind of spread out in this big area and it was a huge snowstorm, so the recovery teams really couldn’t get there that fast,” Borer added. “I remember that this guy was bleeding and so was this guy and we didn’t have a ton of ambulances there right away. I remember saying, ‘I will ride in an ambulance but get the guys out of here who are bleeding and in a ton of pain and get them taken care of.’ It didn’t really hit me until I was sitting in the hospital and they took an X-ray and the doctor came back and said, ‘You have a broken neck.’”

Borer had fractured his C-5 vertebra, but had feeling in his extremities as doctors, nurses and head coach Jeff Daniels gathered around to help ease his worst fears.

“When I left there the doctor just said: ‘You’re very, very lucky; you probably don’t know how lucky you are,”’ Borer said.

With the season now nearing an end for the River Rats, Borer wore a neck brace for 6-8 weeks before seeing a doctor in Albany, who cleared him to begin light workouts as he returned home to Minnesota.

But as May approached, Borer wasn’t feeling like his old self -- on or off the ice.

“The last stop I made before leaving (Albany) was to a doctor to get cleared and he told me I wouldn’t need surgery, to let everything calm down, and I would be fine,” Borer said. “He cleared me and said, ‘best of luck at training camp.’ I was having a great summer and I started training but when I started skating a littler heavier and working out a little harder something just wasn’t right, so I went and got a second opinion. They said, ‘Wow, you need to have some work done here, you definitely shouldn’t be playing hockey.”’

After two varying opinions, Borer sought out a third specialist, who couldn’t commit to any firm diagnosis since Borer had no symptoms when he visited the doctor.

“It got to the point where I was just looking for an answer,” Borer said.

By this time, it was training camp in Raleigh, so Borer sought out team doctors, who referred him to a specialist that operated on his back to fuse two vertebras. It was back in a neck brace for 6-8 weeks and his dream of making the Canes for the 2009-10 season was over before it ever started.

“Based on that surgery the doctor said, ‘I think you are going to be OK to play but let’s wait and see how it heals. I’m not guaranteeing you anything,”’ Borer said. “At that point I was optimistic, but I just took it a week at a time and tried to get better each week.”

Borer was cleared by his doctor in Raleigh in January, but headed to Los Angeles for one more doctor visit before lacing up the skates.   

“I had gone through so much stuff, so I got one more opinion in Los Angeles and he said the same thing, that I was good to go,” Borer said. “That’s what I needed to hear in order to continue playing. I managed to get back in just under a year. That’s a positive.”

Borer has played 14 games so far for the River Rats, registering four assists while logging 19 minutes a night as one of the team’s top four defensemen.  

He’s now going through some of the same mental pain that plagued Erik Cole when he suffered a broken neck during the 2006 season.

“It’s a tough decision to make when you’re dealing with your neck and broken bones,” Daniels said. “Casey had to be mentally sure and was confident that he could go play because you can’t play a game of hockey and not take a hit or give a hit. And he wanted to get back.

“It’s tough to join the team in mid-season and everybody else is in top form and he’s trying to find his way, find his hands, so he’s going through a tough stretch with getting up to speed, but with his dedication and the way he works he wants to get back to where he was a year ago and he will,” added Daniels.

Carolina assistant coach Tom Rowe handles the club’s defensive unit, and he remains high on Borer as a top prospect in the near future.

“In some respects it could be frustrating for him, but he’s probably happy that he can play again because that bus accident was about as treacherous as it can be. A lot of guys went through a lot of tough times mentally,” Rowe said. “I guess it puts this game of ours in perspective when you almost lose a couple of players in that accident and the fact that they all made it through in one piece. Casey has just got to keep fighting through it. That’s what the minors are all about, it teaches you how to battle.”

And arguably no one in the Carolina organization has been through a tougher battle the last 12 months than Casey Borer.

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