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From the rink to the brink

Girard looks back at harrowing crash and forward to resuming hockey

LAVAL, Quebec -- Most of the other patients were in their 80s, their knees and hips and elbows in need of rehabilitation and therapy, their bodies surrendering to arthritis, to time. For the better part of two months, Jonathan Girard was just the kid in the nearby bed, then in the swimming pool, then in the strength-and-conditioning room.

He said little, worked a lot. The octogenarians had to wonder.

"At first, I don't think they knew I was a hockey player," said the Bruins defenseman, whose gait these days barely shows a trace of the horror that tumbled and crashed his way last July. "Eventually, I guess they figured it out. I mean, they saw these big guys come visit me -- Hal Gill and Nick Boynton -- all dressed up in jacket and tie. That's when they had to figure, `Hey, either he's a hockey player or he's in the Mafia.' "

Thanks to . . . well, sometimes he has trouble working out, even fathoming all the thanks . . . the 23-year-old Girard still thinks of himself as a hockey player. He believes he'll play again, in the NHL, for the Bruins, resuming a life that nearly ended the morning of July 24, 2003, when he lost control of his Mitsubishi sedan and careened off a country road and into a ditch in the countryside about an hour north of Montreal.

The accident left Girard with a shattered pelvis, fractured in four places, as well as a broken right hip and another fracture high in his neck. With two pals aboard, headed to a morning workout, Girard had been the driver. The sky was blue. The road was dry. There was no rush to get to the health club and, he said, he was not speeding.

"A two-way road, out in the country, just farms all around," recalled Girard, sitting yesterday in the office of his agent, Bob Sauve, the former NHL goaltender. "The road dipped a little, no curve or anything, but I put my foot on the brake, and then . . ."

He believes what happened next was a mechanical failure in the rear brakes, specifically on the driver's side. He believes the brake shattered, forcing the wheel to seize, and sending the sedan into a spin. As it fishtailed and veered right, said Girard, he fought to regain control, but any hope of recovery ended when the front right wheel hit a gravelly soft shoulder that flipped the car off the road and into a ditch just a few feet below the road surface.

Girard's pals were generally unscathed. One of them, said Girard, sustained only a minor dislocation in his back that emergency medical workers quickly made right when they arrived. The car upside-down, the roof crushed, Girard was left sprawled across the front of the interior, his head pinned near the floor on the passenger side, his feet up against the door on the driver's side. Still conscious, he could hear his buddies outside the car, pleading with him not to move.

"It's hard to say I was fortunate, because it was such a bad accident," said Girard, who has a couple of small scars visible just below his right temple, and a multitude of surgical scars on his abdomen and back. "But in a way I was lucky, because my friends, Fahrise and Eric, kept yelling, "Don't move! Don't move! You don't know what you've got!'

"I knew I was hurt, but I didn't know my neck was broken. You have all the adrenaline rushing through you, you know? But I couldn't move. I was trapped. Maybe if I'd jumped out and started to run around, all scared and everything, things would have been even worse."

Girard remained pinned inside, his intestines hemorrhaging badly, waiting for a highway emergency team to arrive. It was about an hour, he said, from the time of the accident until highway workers extricated him with the Jaws of Life and loaded him into an ambulance headed for Hopital Sacre Coeur in downtown Montreal. He didn't lose consciousness until he was inside the ambulance, and not until after he went into epileptic-type convulsions, which doctors have told him probably were related to internal bleeding or a drastic change in his sugar level.

"The whole time, I never thought I was that bad," said Girard, who ultimately needed a series of operations, the first some 72 hours later, to put his pelvis back together with screws. He was in a medically-induced coma for nearly four days.

"You're there, and you think you're fine, but yes, I almost died," he said. "I don't know how close I was, but close."

Broken and bedridden The 48th pick in the 1998 draft, Girard became a regular in the Boston lineup last season, his mobility behind the blue line considered an important part of the Bruins' future. He was not a physical presence, but he was on the move. Just under 6 feet tall and right around 205 pounds, he was shaping up as a nightly contributor, someone to count on back there for 16, 18, 20 minutes.

"Sad to say, before the accident, I was in the best shape I'd ever been," said Girard, who had made that drive to the health club six times a week during the summer. "Last year was my first full year in the NHL, and a lot of guys in their second year, they dip, you know? I wanted to guard against that."

Girard spent three months in the Montreal hospital, not allowed to leave his bed for two months. Then came complications. Twice he needed colon surgery. A blood infection filled his lungs with fluid. Another troubling infection eventually led doctors to a piece of dying muscle in his back, requiring more surgery to transfer healthy muscle from his buttocks. Girard's weight over the weeks plummeted from 205 to 160.

"When I took my first step," Girard recalled, breaking into a grin he flashed repeatedly during an hourlong interview, "it was a like newborn pony. You know, one leg this way, one leg that way, all rubbery, falling all over the place."

In the early going, it was obvious to Girard that he would not play this season. As the complications increased and his weight and spirits sank, he began to yield to thoughts of maybe missing two years, even more. A career lost? Possibly, but he said he didn't dwell on it.

As the days went by, Girard turned his focus away from hockey. He began to think of things he could do if the game were no longer in his life.

"I was thinking maybe I'd go back to school," he said. "I also was thinking maybe I'd look into something to do with sports psychology. I like that whole field. I thought about a lot of things. I have good hands, so maybe even construction."

But as the days went by, the early ones excruciatingly slow, Girard could tell he was getting better, stronger. Three months after the accident, able to get around with the aid of a walker, he began a two-month stay at a rehabilitation center near his agent's office, surrounded by his senior citizen friends. He progressed to walking with two canes, then one. Just last week, nearly six months after the accident, he ditched the cane for good.

Back on skates Near his home in Joliette, an hour north of Quebec, there is a river, the Assomption River. Over the weekend, Girard pulled on his skates for the first time since last April and rediscovered his stride.

"It felt great," said a beaming Girard, whose return to the ice coincided with taking his last dose of Coumadin, a blood thinner. Doctors wouldn't clear him to skate, he said, until he finished the medication, limiting his risk of bleeding if he had an on-ice mishap.

"I can't push off very much yet. I'm still weak. I'll have to build back my weight [he's up to 180], and my strength, slowly. And I'm only skating. No stick. No puck. I don't want that temptation yet. But I told the doctors, `I skated before I walked -- there's nothing better for me than skating.' "

In the meantime, Girard has tabled thoughts of an alternative livelihood. He got thousands upon thousands of get-well wishes via email, and he figures he owes those people, the vast percentage of whom he's never met, something other than a thank you. If not for the love and care of his immediate family -- including his mother (Sylvie), father (Bertrand), and younger sister (Josienne) -- his extended family, his friends, and his email well-wishers, he knows in his heart that his recovery wouldn't have been this fast.

At the same time, he doesn't know how far it will go.

"All I know is, I have this chance, a second chance," said Girard. "I know it's a huge challenge. But I look at it like this: Every step I take today is a step closer than I was before. My parents were with me the whole time. I can't ask for better than that. Without everybody who's helped me, prayed for me, I know I wouldn't be talking about a comeback right now. And if I go all the way, as far as I can, and in the end I hit my nose up against the wall, then that's fine. It's the way it will have to be. But I have this chance to go for it, and I'm going for it."

Girard will be at the Bell Center Saturday, when the Bruins are in Montreal for a matinee against the Canadiens, and he plans to visit his friends in the dressing room. No doubt it will be an emotional reunion, back among all those big men, in their jackets, ties, and spoked B's on their chests.

If all goes as he hopes, Girard would like to begin training next summer the way he was training last summer, and from there get an indication of just how far he has to go to return to the game he loves.

"Before all this happened, I think I believed a lot in fate --that things like this happened to people for a reason," said Girard, who still wears the small crucifix around his neck that he was wearing when he was pulled from the wreck. "When something like this happens to you, I don't think there's any knowing why it happened, or how it's going to affect your life. I guess some people believe in destiny. I know I did. I was like that, before.

"Now, though, I feel you have to live with it. Whatever happens, you have to live with it. It is what it is. It's either that or it's destiny, and after all this, I don't know if it's one or the other."

Girard has never seen pictures of the accident. Six months later, he said he really has no desire to look back. He gets around well enough on his skates. For longer trips, he has a GMC truck, with four-wheel drive.

"A big pickup," he said. "No chances."

The Girard interview, edited for TV, will be shown as part of the Bruins-Canadiens telecast on NESN Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

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