Travis Roy — in memoriam

Nicholas Wright

Travis Roy died two weeks ago at the age of only 45. Made quadriplegic as the result of a catastrophic injury in his first on ice moments for Boston University hockey in 1995, Roy continued as a celebrated and beloved inspirational speaker reflecting on his journey following his injury. He also started, and raised substantial funds for, the Travis Roy Foundation, which supported research for individuals with spinal injuries. Speaking from his wheelchair, Roy was the picture of stoic acceptance and personal optimism that captivated an audience at Williams in January 2009.

It was clear from his account that evening and also from his book “Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage and Triumph,” written with E. M. Swift, that he had been sent off the bench to “send a message” to an opposing player, well away from the puck. In a video shown at the talk, the player mostly avoided the “check” and Roy hit the wall head-on, collapsing to the ice.

I followed up his talk with an email to the Foundation, and Roy called me back. We had a good and cordial conversation. I gave him every chance to comment further on the elephant in the room, namely the aggressive, often intended violence of hockey in the heat of competition that had led to his injury, but he was reluctant to comment on his betrayal by the game he loved and referred me elsewhere for that discussion.

We know that in the National Football League and National Hockey League violence sells, but those elite professional players surely know the risks. Is the violence appropriate in the collegiate setting? Should institutions of higher learning like Williams be promoting such gratuitous violence? 

It is my opinion that the best way to honor this brave young man is to take firm steps to remove intended, brawling violence from ice hockey, while also seeking ways to reduce unintended violence. Injuries caused by the violence of contact sport are often called “accidents.” They are not accidents, but to the extent that we use this self-deceptive term, we deny agency to make necessary changes in the way games are played.

Nicholas H. Wright ’57 is a retired medical epidemiologist. He lives in Williamstown, Mass.