It isn't typical for high school freshmen to see a lot of ice time during his first season, but Clay hockey coach Frank Butler had high hopes for Kyle Cannon.
"He was working his way into his role," Butler said of the freshman forward. "He's a decent player. By probably the middle of the season toward the end of the season ... skill-wise, his progress was fantastic from spring to fall practices. There were a lot of positive things for him for the season. He is a well-conditioned athlete."
Cannon's season came to a screeching halt on Nov. 30 when he was checked from behind and shoved into the boards. The illegal check, which injured Cannon's C-5 vertebrae, came with 28 seconds left in the Eagles' game against Lexington (Ky.) Catholic at a tournament at the Kettering Recreation Complex in suburban Dayton.
The game was immediately canceled with Clay holding a 3-0 lead, but that was the last thing on the minds of the players and coaches.
"It was a check from behind, there's no other way to describe it," Butler said. "The (Lexington) kid was behind Kyle and checked him into the boards from two or three feet out. That's what caused the injury. It was violent, how hard he hit and how hard he went down. The kid went down on top of him."
On Nov. 28, a similar incident occurred when Start High School senior Dustin Wells suffered a spinal chord injury in the Spartans' game against Northview.
The illegal check on Cannon happened so fast that there was no way for the 5-7, 140-pound Cannon, playing on the Eagles' third line, to brace himself appropriately.
Butler said he saw the hit take place.
"It is pretty much unethical to hit somebody from behind, especially in hockey," the coach said. "You try to avoid that at all costs; it's not acceptable. I don't want to get into defining what is and what isn't checking. Checking from behind is not an acceptable thing in the coaching ranks, from offficials on down.
"When somebody gets hurt like this, it really is an eye opener about how we can change this rule. There should be no two minutes (penalty) for checking from behind. There should be zero tolerance. It should not be allowed, period. Seeing this first hand, as coaches and colleagues of mine and officials, we need to come together and come up with a quick solution for checking from behind because there is no room for it."
Butler said there are a range of penalties assessed for checking from behind, including a two-minute penalty and a five-minute penalty with disqualification. The Lexington player who checked Cannon into the boards received a "2 and 10" penalty for the hit — two minutes for an illegal check and a 10-minute misconduct penalty.
Butler added that watching Cannon get checked into the boards from behind "was violent and sickening to watch."
"He was conscious when we got to him, but he had no idea what happened," Butler said. "He said he couldn't move his legs and arms. At that point we called for a medic right away and he got attention within seconds. Our trainer went out. They had an EMT right there at the facility and they took control of the situation and 9-1-1 was called."
On Tuesday, Butler said he was told that Cannon had surgery at 4 p.m. Monday at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton for a compressed C-5 vertebrae.
"He's got feeling all the way to his belly button to his elbows, which is encouraging news," Butler said. "We just continue to pray."
The coach said he met Cannon when the then eighth-grader attended a hockey open house at Clay last year to meet the coaching staff. Cannon had played for the school's Junior Eagles program and came out for the varsity team this year.
"I don't cut a lot of kids because the program is small," Butler said. "We've known him for about six months, but he's just a fantastic, outgoing kid. He's a very polite and well-mannered kid."
Butler said he and the Clay coaches addressed the team about Cannon's situation during a Tuesday morning practice.
"We're trying to carry on and get back to as much normalcy as we can," Butler said. "There are challenges every day and it's not going to be easy, but it is Kyle and Kyle's father, Jim's, wishes that we keep moving forward and that's what we're going to continue to do."
Lexington Catholic released a press release on Tuesday that read: "Lexington Catholic High School is greatly saddened by the injury that resulted from the November 30th hockey game against Oregon Clay High School. Though there was no malicious intent on the part of our player, both he and the entire LCHS hockey team feel great remorse for the injured player and family as they deal with this tragic accident. Our heartfelt prayers go out to Kyle Cannon and his family during this difficult time."
Butler thanked the hockey community and others for their support.
"It's amazing to see people pull together," he said. "The Cannon family and the Oregon Schools appreciate all their support."
Dave Fischer, spokesman for USA Hockey, Inc., the national governing body for ice hockey, said his organization does not track spinal chord injuries at the high school level. He did say, however, that the injuries suffered by Cannon and Wells are extremely rare.
"Safety is obviously a big concern," Fischer said. "The number of times this happens, once is too many. You don't want any injuries, but thankfully this happens very infrequently. The NCAA does have some kind of tracking situation, but I have never heard that the high school federations have a mechanism to track various injuries. We typically hear about serious injuries in the hockey world just because people will call or we get media accounts of it."
People wishing to donate to help for medical expenses for Cannon and Wells will be able to do so at Northwest Hockey League games at local hockey venues this weekend.