An Injury, and a New Career in Hockey
A Brush With Paralysis at Dartmouth Paved the Way for a Job at UNH
Hanover — Scott Borek walked into Thompson Arena yesterday through a side door leading to the parking lot and stomped snow off his shoes. That the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey assistant coach could do so is a link to a fortunate twist of fate that occurred nearly 30 years ago in the same building.
It was in a western corner of the rink here, on Jan. 19, 1983, that Borek’s life changed forever. In roughly 24 hours, he was unlucky enough to be paralyzed and blessed that the condition was only temporary. The injury ended one career, but started another, Borek has never since taken his life for granted or the ability to move freely through it.
“Not many guys have that injury and are fortunate to walk away,” said Borek, whose No. 2 Wildcats clash with No. 10 Dartmouth tonight in the Big Green’s holiday tournament. “There’s never a day that I don’t feel good because of my neck and I’m unbelievably lucky that’s the case.”
Borek, 50, is a native of Swampscott, Mass., just north of Boston. He was a three-sport athlete at Phillips Exeter Academy in southeast New Hampshire and was on the verge of becoming a Dartmouth hockey star when he playing career ended.
A lesser neck injury during Borek’s freshman year led to a diagnosis of congenital fusion in part of his upper spine and a physician’s insistence that he quit hockey. However, further testing and examination led to his being cleared for his sophomore season, and he blossomed as a power forward, producing 10 goals and 13 assists in 15 games. Dartmouth, which had reached the national semifinals in 1979 and 1980, won only 10 games during Borek’s freshman year, and his second neck injury was a severe blow to the program’s hopes for a rebound.
“It was a bad play on my part and I wasn’t even supposed to be on the ice,” said Borek, recalling that the Big Green was being routed by Yale and that he was looking to release frustration with a big hit in the corner. “Dan Nugent and I tried to run (Yale’s) Randy Wood and he made a move at the last minute. There was a three-way collision, and I don’t remember much after that.”
For an agonizingly long time, Borek laid on his stomach, his face resting slightly sideways on the ice, his helmet and its wire-cage mask pushed partway up on his head.
“I knew if I couldn’t get myself off the ice, I was never going to play again,” Borek said. “I was pushing and pushing, but I wasn’t moving.”
A large crowd watched in apprehension as Borek was gingerly loaded onto a stretcher and teammates, including Mark Ardagna and Bill Flanigan, helped skate it off the ice and through the runway doors at the arena’s eastern end. So precarious was Borek’s condition that medical personnel didn’t dare remove any of his equipment. As he was slowly carried away, Borek stared at the arena’s concrete ceiling, his mashed helmet and mask resting on his head and face like a tenacious crustacean.
Among those in attendance were John and Katie Manchester, a couple in their 40s who had taken Borek and several of his teammates under their wing. John Manchester did occasional business with Borek’s brother, Jim, and so the Hanover residents invited Scott over for regular dinners. When Borek was taken to Mary Hitchcock Hospital, the Manchesters realized his parents weren’t at the game, and so Katie hustled down Park Street to keep the injured youngster company.
“It was like one of my own kids getting hurt,” said Katie Manchester, the mother of two daughters, one of whom played for the Big Green women’s hockey program. “I was a little panicked in the ward, because he couldn’t move and we didn’t know how bad it was going to be. But I couldn’t let him see that. I just sat with him and told him it would be all right.
“It was so scary. After a while, all you can do is sit there and be a face that he knows.”
Borek was diagnosed with a spinal concussion, and from dim memory, recalls regaining full movement and sensation in less than a day. By that time, his parents had arrived from Massachusetts. Their son remained in the hospital for 10 days, departing for the first time under even more tragic circumstances, when his mother’s sister, Judy Cassidy, died in a car accident, leaving behind eight children.
“I remember being at her service and realizing I was pretty lucky,” Borek said. “It was awful, but it also let me know I had to get my (act) together.”
For six months, Borek wore a rigid harness around his shoulders. It connected to a neck brace that featured a metal tray on which his chin rested. His teammates and Chi Heorot fraternity brothers did their best to take his mind off the discomfort with nonstop razzing about his appearance.
“I looked bizarre,” Borek said. “The guys ripped me to shreds.”
Amazingly, Borek didn’t have to withdraw from school and he spent his last two years at Dartmouth as a volunteer assistant coach. The role wasn’t just a handout, either. Borek progressed to coaching the junior varsity and accompanying full-time assistant Bob Gaudet on recruiting trips.
“He was so passionate for the game and he always had a hundred ideas, was always making you think,” said Gaudet, who’s in his 16th season as Dartmouth’s head coach. “He tried to get the doctors to let him play goalie after he was hurt, but once he accepted coaching, he wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and he created a certain separation between himself and his buddies on the team.”
Borek undertook three years as an assistant at Providence, then moved across town to Brown when Gaudet landed the head job there. Following four years with the Bears, he became head coach at Division III Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where the Mules were 33-35-5 during his three years there. Borek spent a year as associate head coach at Division I Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and landed the Lakers’ head job when veteran coach Jeff Jackson resigned.
“He hadn’t been there long and it kind of snuck up on him,” Gaudet said. “He was taking over for a legend and that’s a tough thing. But it’s not like you’re going to turn that kind of chance down.”
The Soo, as it’s known, is a rather isolated city of about 15,000 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, connected by a bridge to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Lake Superior State had won 30 or more games in a season five times, as well as three national championships, during the decade before Borek’s arrival. The Lakers were 30-8-0 his first season with the program, but once he took over as head coach, their performance slumped. The players behaved better and pursued academics with more zeal, but Borek was fired after five seasons and a 76-94-15 record.
“The media and some of the fans beat me up daily because I was from the East and I didn’t win enough games,” said Borek, whose last Lakers team was the first in 19 years not to make the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs. “But even getting fired at Lake Superior was a good experience for me. Until you go through that and have to go home to four kids, you don’t really know how much you want to coach.”
Because he had a year remaining on his contract, Borek didn’t have to scramble for work. Nonetheless, he took a job coaching Division III New England College in Henniker, N.H., for the 2001-02 season, where one of his players was current Dartmouth assistant John Rose. The Pilgrims were 9-8-2 that winter, and Borek moved on to his current position for the start of the next season.
At UNH, Borek was reunited with Wildcats head coach Dick Umile, who had once been a fellow Providence assistant. Borek works with the team’s forwards and its power play, while also serving as recruiting coordinator. He’s married to the former Cheryl Stahl, a onetime hockey and soccer player at Brown, and they’re the parents of four teenagers.
Borek appeared to be a frontrunner for the head coaching job at the University of Massachusetts last summer, but it went to University of Vermont assistant John Micheletto, who played 13 games as a Dartmouth freshman during Borek’s senior year. Micheletto then left the program, eventually graduating in 1990.
Borek shrugged when asked about being passed over.
“The UMass thing was exciting, but it wasn’t because I was looking to leave where I am,” he said. “I loved being a head coach and maybe I’ll be one again and maybe not. It’s not a big deal to me either way. I get to be around college-aged kids every day and I get to motivate them in creative ways. There’s nothing better.”
So what would Borek say now to his younger self? What message would he pass on if he was transported back to the bedside of a kid who will never play another hockey game?
“I would say appreciate what you have and don’t wallow in what you don’t,” Borek said after a slight pause. “I saw a kid get run from behind at a game last weekend and I had to leave for a little while, because I’ve been there and it’s scary.
“But I always refer to my injury as a lucky thing, because it allowed me to walk away with my health and it allowed me to find my life’s profession.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3227.