The fight to get Mikey Nichols back on his feet is getting stronger each year.
The 22-year-old who was paralyzed during a high school hockey game five years ago will be at Prudential Center on Friday for the 5th annual Mikey Strong Charity Hockey Game to benefit spinal cord research and quality-of-life initiatives, the Nichols Family Trust and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
What started as a charity game at Ice World Sports Complex in Middletown, New Jersey in 2015 has grown so big it will be played at the home of the New Jersey Devils for the second straight year.
"The support from the community of athletics has been nothing short of just great," said Boomer Esiason, former NFL quarterback and current co-host of "Boomer and Gio," a morning show on WFAN, a sports-talk radio station in New York. "To open up a major NHL building like the Prudential Center, on a Friday night, for a charity hockey game, is nothing short of a miracle, especially in this area."
Esiason and his radio partner Gregg Giannotti will play in the game with Devils alumni including Bryce Salvador, Ken Daneyko and Bruce Driver. Rick DiPietro, Mike Komisarek and Benoit Hogue are among retired NHL players also participating along with Michelle Picard, a silver medalist for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and Will Reeve, son of late actor Christopher Reeve who was left quadriplegic after being thrown from a horse during an equestrian competition.
General admission tickets are $25 and corporate sponsorship packages are available. The first 5,000 fans will receive a voucher for two complimentary tickets to a New York Yankees game during the 2019 season. Added to the promotion this year are two tickets to see the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer in 2019 and the Devils in 2019-20.
Esiason, who played 14 NFL seasons as quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals, was on the air with then co-host Craig Carton when they heard about a senior forward from Monroe (N.J.) High School who had his C5 vertebrae shattered when he was checked headfirst into the boards during a game against Vernon High School on Jan. 4, 2014.
Nichols received an invitation to join "Boomer and Carton," who were captivated by his spirit, will to survive and determination to play hockey again. The seeds were planted for the first charity game.
"Because Mikey had so much energy and so much love for the game of hockey, we just thought it was natural to do something for him," Esiason said. "We saw the response the first two or three years and it was just overwhelming. If anybody has ever talked to Mikey or just listened to him speak about how his hopes and dreams are to get back on the ice, you want to do anything you possibly can to help him get there."
Once the Devils and their community outreach program got involved and helped Esiason recruit retired NHL players, Mikey Strong outgrew Ice World, earned sponsorship from M&Ms and raised $200,000 in the first three years, with Esiason estimating between $50,000 and $60,000 last year. Exposure also has increased with promotion during Devils home games and on WFAN.
"When the Devils took this over last year, it took it to a whole other level," Esiason said. "JP (special adviser Jonathan Press) and everybody over at the Devils deserve a lot of credit for this, for doing it for a (New York Rangers) fan who's involved with a kid who got hurt in New Jersey. And Mikey has certainly been the impetuous for all of this.
"When I see somebody like Mikey talking the way he does, it's not hard to be impressed by him. I guess he embodies the true spirit of the hockey player that he really is, the hockey player inside of him, certainly the hockey player that keeps him living and pushing forward to hopefully new heights."
Eric LeGrand, a former Rutgers University defensive tackle paralyzed during a game against Army on Oct. 16. 2010, has regained movement in his shoulders and sensation throughout his body. The late Dennis Byrd walked again after the former New York Jets defensive end was paralyzed while playing the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 29, 1992. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sustained a spinal contusion against the Bengals on Dec. 4, 2017 and did not play in 2018 but jogged Nov. 30, the first time he'd done something like that since spinal stabilization surgery.
Those are three examples of how the human spirit can work wonders. Mickey Nichols is driven to become another.
"You have to be realistic about the injury and have to understand what he goes through on a daily basis to overcome this," Esiason said. "My respect lies with his mindset. From Mikey Nichols to Eric LeGrand and Ryan Shazier, they feed off each other. I believe that someday Mikey Nichols will put those skates on and he'll get back out on the ice. Whether or not he'll be scoring anymore, that I don't know, but I believe it's in his heart that he will do that. And if it's in his heart, I'm not ever going to question that."