Cornell forward Cole Bardreau proudly draped a gold medal around his neck on Jan. 5 after Team USA's victory against Sweden in the World Junior Championship game in Ufa, Russia.
Exactly two weeks later, Big Red played Rensselaer. Little did Bardreau know he would soon have a plastic brace mounted around his neck to begin one of the most incredible comebacks in NCAA history.
"I fractured my C-7 vertebrae in both the front and back [of my neck], and both were compression fractures," Bardreau told NHL.com about the result of an illegal check. "You're flirting with being paralyzed when it's three of them."
Incredibly, and with luck on his side, Cole flirted with disaster by finishing that game.
"He's a very lucky human being," Cornell coach Mike Schafer told the media last January.
Fractured vertebrae ended Cornell forward Cole Bardreau's 2012-13 season and threatened his career, but the alternate captain for Big Red is back on the ice. (Photo: Getty Images)
On the eve of Bardreau's (and Cornell's) first game of the season Friday night against Nebraska-Omaha, Schafer and Cole recounted the miraculous events for NHL.com.
"He hit the boards and came back with pain in his chest and couldn't catch his breath," Schafer said. "Talking with him at the hospital, the neurologist said it was quite common with a serious neck injury. The pain radiates down into the chest. He was a very fortunate young man that nothing [further] occurred in that game. I guess there are three columns in your neck that can impact you, and he had fractured two of them."
"The game was Saturday and it wasn't until the next day I felt some pain," said Bardreau, a native of Fairport, N.Y. "My trainer said the neck is a little stiff so just in case, I want you to stop by the local health center and get a precautionary X-ray. That was Monday. I kind of walked in like nothing was going to happen and when I got the X-ray, they put me on a stretcher and that's when I kind of knew there was trouble.
"I was rushed into surgery [after an MRI showed both fractures] and didn't think I could play again. But the MRI guy came over as I was going in and said I should be OK to play again."
"He went from the high to the low of being out the rest of the year," Schafer said. "That was the emotional challenge for him."
"I couldn't imagine my life without hockey," Bardreau said. "I've had a few injuries, and hoped this was another bump in that road. The severity of this one pushed me even more to train harder and get back to where I was."
Bardreau was confident he would be able to return to the ice. But he had a long rehabilitation process ahead of him.
"Neck brace for three months and absolutely no physical activity," Bardreau said. "The following three months I had no contact, just very gradually some weight lifting. Then at six months, the [internal support] bolts came out.
"I was able to skate after the brace came off, but light skating only and by myself. That led to some light shooting and a slow progression back as time went on in that five-month period after the brace came off.
New era begins at BU under Quinn
By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent
David Quinn has the unenviable task of replacing a coaching legend at Boston University in Jack Parker, but the former BU defenseman has already overcome his fair share of challenges in life. READ MORE ›
"This past summer of hard training has me confident I'm all the way back. The doctors told me I'm 100 percent healed and there's no standard percentage of me being hurt again."
After looking at Bardreau's stats following two years at the U.S. National Team Development Program and two seasons in Ithaca, N.Y., one might ask what makes him such a major contributor on the ice.
In 47 career games at Cornell, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound forward has six goals and nine assists. He is also an alternate captain on the Big Red's roster.
"I'm just a vocal guy in the locker room and pretty personal," Bardreau said. "I take pride in knowing all my teammates on a personal level. I'm not a real skill guy, but like keeping the energy up. I like to do things at 110 miles an hour to keep everyone's focus and self-esteem up.
"I think I just want to pick up where I left off. The first two years at Cornell, I contributed; this year, step up and contribute more offensively. Points will come with that."
"I never had an experience with a player coming back from this type of injury," Schafer said last week. "Never. But there's no difference in [his skill level] now and before the injury. He's gained more and more confidence. He's the type of player who just keeps coming and coming out there."
Two people have been out there motivating Bardreau throughout his life and current comeback -- and continue coming to most of his games.
"My parents and obviously, my mom was with me the whole time," Bardreau said about Debbie Bardreau. "She's basically given up everything, like moving away to taking new jobs and put me in the best situation to play hockey. She never looked twice or complained about anything, just kept going.
"Then there's my older brother, Ryan, who's in the Army. Always tougher on me and helped me get into that mindset that nothing ever comes easy. You need to push through your struggles. He's had one tour of duty in Afghanistan last July for six months."
Ryan Bardreau was in the stands last December when Cornell played a home game in Madison Square Garden against Michigan, a month before Cole's devastating injury.
"That win really gave us some momentum," Bardreau told NCAA.com at the time.
To show support for the troops, the Big Red wore camouflage jerseys for the game against the Wolverines and auctioned them off for the Wounded Warrior Project.
"For myself, it was even a bigger deal because of my brother. Seeing him in the crowd at MSG, I definitely had an extra spring in my step," Bardreau said.
This past weekend, against long odds, the spring is back in Bardreau's step against Nebraska-Omaha. Big Red swept the Mavericks on the road to begin the season at 2-0.
Bardreau's breakout three-point contribution included the game-winning goal in Friday night's 5-3 win; on Saturday, Cornell prevailed, 4-3.
"I think about [the injury] every day, how lucky I was," the undrafted Bardreau said with a serious tone last week. "I wouldn't play the game for any reason other than the love of it. Love strapping up the skates, being with the guys and just competing.
"I'll do it for as long as I can."