Joel Williams was returning home from hockey registration, eager to start another promising season, when his life was changed forever. The honour roll student, just 17 at the time, would never join his team mates back on the ice, nor go off to university like many of his peers. Instead, the Langley, B.C. teen would spend just over three months in a coma — the doctors were certain he wouldn’t make it.
“My parents were told that if I survived, I’d be a vegetable,” said Williams, whose driver-side door was struck one August afternoon in 1998 while going through an intersection on a green light. The driver — a man with a suspended license for impaired driving.
“They had to get the Jaws of Life to get me out. I shattered both my knees, broke my left thigh, fractured my skull and damaged my brain.”
It was late November when the Cloverdale Colts minor league hockey player slowly came to.
“It’s nothing like you see in the movies,” said Williams, now 32. “I could hear voices around me, which felt like I was in a dream… I didn’t know what was going on.”
Williams was transferred from Royal Columbian Hospital to the G.F. Strong Centre to begin a challenge more difficult than any game or obstacle he’d ever faced out on the ice rink — rehabilitation.
“It was pretty frustrating, long, tedious and agonizing,” said Williams, who spent eight months in the hospital relearning how to use his body, the next four years dependent on a wheelchair. “I was so active before and really missed hockey… actually, it’s the one thing I’ve missed most since my accident.”
In addition to the devastating blow to his body, William’s suffered extensive brain damage from the impact of the crash.
“I’ve been told many times by many different doctors that there’s no cure,” he said. “Healing will slowly occur, but it is a permanent challenge.”
Despite being struck down in the prime of his life, Williams keeps a smile on his face and a winning attitude.
“I stay positive because I don’t like the alternative,” said Williams, who now walks with a cane, has gone on to run the Vancouver Sun Run, play one-handed golf and is back on the road driving again. “I don’t like the other alternative… to me, this is how you win.”
And, it’s this hockey fan’s determination and positive outlook that has garnered him a position with the Langley Rivermen Junior A hockey team keeping track of their statistics at every home game.
“I still miss the game, but now I enjoy a different aspect of it,” said Williams matter-of-factly. “Now I sit upstairs in a private suite and they are the best seats in the house… it’s also really nice to be part of a team again.”
Williams may not get any goals, but the Langley Rivermen consider Williams an integral part of their team, according to team manager Bobby Henderson.
“It’s a job that goes unnoticed by most people, but the numbers he provides our coaching staff are very important… the numbers tell a story,” said Henderson, noting the guys on the team enjoy having Williams around.
“A lot of the time you have people willing to do the job, but they don’t have the charisma he has. Joel is always funny and keeps the mood light. He may not be a big asset on the big screen, but he’s big to our organization.”
While Williams isn’t quite sure what the future holds, one thing is for certain — he will never give up.
“I plan to keep on recovering and build towards more and more independence. I’d love to do something in hockey, whether it’s the Langley Rivermen or the Vancouver Canucks. I just have to keep strong and keep going.”