By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
At some point, Jay Jones is sure, he and his friends from Traverse City West will reminisce about playing in the second-longest hockey game in MHSAA history.
Erik Anton always will remember sending the shot into the top corner of the net that made the score 2-1 in favor of his team and ended the seven-overtime marathon against Jones and the Traverse City Bay Reps – but there’s no way Anton will be the one bringing it up.
No need. His goal as midnight approached Monday immediately became legendary in the Traverse City area – complete with a captivating back story as well.
Anton’s shot ended the game after 103 minutes and 33 seconds – or 4:33 into the seventh overtime.
A little more than year ago, Anton couldn’t skate, or for that matter walk – he was hospitalized in Grand Rapids, paralyzed from the rib cage down because of a viral infection.
And among his visitors was Jones, a friend since childhood and the Bay Reps goalie Monday who stopped 48 shots before Anton potted the game winner.
“I don’t think it’s something where I’ll be like, ‘Remember that?’ But obviously it will be in our memories,” Anton said. “We were trying for such a long time. (For them) it was such a heart-breaking experience.
“(But) I might tease him about it a little bit.”
Anton and Traverse City West live on, having also beaten Manistee on Wednesday to advance to Saturday’s Division 1 Regional Final against Grand Rapids West Catholic. A trophy-earning win that night surely would add to an incredibly memorable week.
But it already has been an unforgettable year for the Titans junior wing, even as his most “miraculous” feat came against a friend who has been among those rooting him on these last many months.
Anton has played hockey since he was 3, and he has six goals and eight assists this winter. It’s his number one sport – although he also plays tennis and lacrosse.
Needless to say, he’s always been an active guy.
Until December 2012. Anton contracted transverse myelitis, an infection affecting the spiral cord caused in this case by a virus. His immune system, mistaking that part of his nervous system for the virus, attacked – causing the paralysis that sent him on a trip to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.
“How I describe it, I was lying down and somebody just put 1,000 pounds on top of my legs,” Anton said. “You try to move your legs and you can’t.
“(The doctor) would take a pen and touch the bottom of my foot, and it felt like they were taking a lighter to the bottom of my foot.”
His doctor gave him a 33 percent chance of recovering fully. Anton was expected to stay in Grand Rapids at the Mary Free Bed rehabilitation hospital for three months.
That first weekend away from home, Anton was visited by teammates and friends, including Jones. Their travel teams growing up had included about half of the current West team, a few who now play at Traverse City Central and a handful more now on the Bay Reps.
“I was shocked to see him like that,” Jones said, “not being able to move a whole lot.”
Jones, a sophomore, attends St. Francis High School. The Bay Reps are a hockey co-op team comprised of students from seven schools. He and Anton never went to the same one, but their families are friends and they became hockey teammates on the travel circuit when they were 8 or 9.
They also started lacrosse together, played tennis together, golfed and more recently snowboarded together.
Jones first heard of what had befallen his friend in the lockerroom after a practice. Stunned to say the least, Jones didn’t say much for the first day or two before he and their friends made the trip to Grand Rapids.
By Jones’ description, Anton is a funny guy, definitely an extrovert. They together were the talkers on their travel teams growing up. Jones found his friend wasn’t much different in this unusual setting, just a little quieter. “He actually got up and we wheeled him around the hospital area,” Jones said. “We were laughing and making jokes like normal.”
“I just remember being in high spirits,” Anton added. “I always love seeing my friends, and having my friends come down and visit me, just being able to be with them again, especially when I was just laying in the hospital ...”
Anton said he knew from the start that he wouldn’t settle for a three-month hospital stay and surely not for paralysis for life if he could help it. He showed enough improvement to go home after just two weeks. And by the end of the spring lacrosse season, he felt back at full strength.
“It is pretty amazing. Once he got back, everyone pretty much treated him like normal,” Jones said. “He was back to his old self.”
Anton could feel Jones’ stick jabbing at his skates whenever he came close to the net Monday. Anton laughed to himself at the little unspoken competition between the two.
He felt strong going into the third overtime, but by the fourth his legs were feeling heavy. By the seventh overtime his shifts had shortened substantially as players dug for any energy they could muster.
Meanwhile, Jones would smack his stick at the goal posts between periods, swing it at the net – “pretty much trying to stay awake at that point,” he said.
As the overtimes piled up, Jones also began to consider the significance of being part of such a game. It would be talked about for a long time. Everyone would know it was hard-fought. Win or lose, both teams would feel a sense of accomplishment. But if his team lost, he’d be absolutely crushed.
Both he and Anton saw a similar build-up to Anton’s deciding shot. Anton had been on the ice for about 15 seconds. His team was regrouping in the neutral zone when teammate Caleb Breithaupt ended up with a loose puck and pushed it ahead to forward Nick Schultz at the blue line.
Anton took a pass at the top of a circle in front of the Bay Reps’ net. Jones saw him line up the shot. A defenseman skated between them, but remained just off to a side. Anton fired at the high left corner of the net. Jones never saw the puck go by.
It was the Bay Reps’ fifth overtime loss this season. Jones took a knee staring at the ice in front of him. His teammates skated over and provided some support, but the moment was “surreal” – for a moment, Jones said, the ice was completely silent. And then he looked into the corner and saw number 19, Anton, celebrating. He smiled, just a little.
Traverse City West had lost to the Reps in overtime, 5-4, in a 2013 Pre-Regional opener, and then again earlier this season. Those details provide additional layers to an extraordinary experience players on both sides will tell about in the years to come.
It’s what Anton has learned to relish while recovering from his unfortunate circumstance, even if he’ll let others start this conversation the next time he’s hanging with Jones and his other Bay Reps pals.
“I definitely don’t take anything for granted anymore. I always put all my effort into sports, but after going through that, I really try to enjoy it, make the most of it when I can,” Anton said. “I always had a competitive edge, and I still do. Now I definitely try to enjoy it while I’m out there, enjoy the experience.”
Click to read more about Anton’s initial recovery from the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City West’s Erik Anton (19) unloads a shot at Bay Reps goalie Jay Jones that Jones stops Monday. (Middle top) Anton, seated, is visited by friends including Jones (gray jacket) during his hospital stay. (Middle below) Anton, left, and Jones take a brief moment from lacrosse during their younger days. (Below) Members of the West and Bay Reps hockey teams hold up Anton’s jersey after a game he could not play in last season. (Photos courtesy of Madelaine Jones.)
When Gage Looker went down with an ACL injury in Gaylord’s first football game this fall, Liz Harding – president of the Blue Devils’ hockey boosters – was absolutely devastated.
Looker, an all-conference hockey defenseman last winter, was playing, as a senior, in his first-ever varsity football game. Harding, also Looker’s mom, was there.
“I caught the one and only picture of him playing football just before he injured himself,” Harding recalled. “I was devastated!”
Doctors indicated surgery was necessary and recovery would prevent Looker from getting back on the ice, the football field and the track where Looker had dreams of great success this year.
“Knowing hockey is his passion — and thoughts of him not playing did not set well with me — Gage started what I would call standard physical therapy a couple days after surgery and then added an additional blood flow therapy with our local trainer to his weekly routine,” Harding said. “Through his hard work and determination, he is back on the ice.”
The Blue Devils, after graduating their other four all-conference players from last winter, were 2-11 this year when Looker returned to the ice against Big North Conference rival Petoskey. Gaylord has won three of seven since.
Gaylord coach Jamie Voss believes Looker’s return was pretty much a miracle. And he thinks Looker is playing at about 80 percent despite being only a few months removed from the injury.
“Gage tore his ACL and was told by doctors his sports life was over,” Voss said. “Gage would not accept this, and he trained harder than any kid I have ever witnessed to prove the doctors wrong.”
Sans injury, Voss notes Looker was certain to graduate on several all-time Gaylord hockey record lists.
“The reports on his progress and rehab were literally off the charts for this type of injury,” Voss said. “His doctors reported early that they have never seen this occur before regarding the strength developments in the afflicted areas that support his ACL tear.”
Voss admitted he had to hold his breath a little – as many Gaylord supporters did – when Looker joined the starting lineup against Petoskey. That moment came after just a week on the ice, including full contact practices.
“More important than records to Gage was his commitment and obligation to be our team leader as our compete level was predictably down this season,” Voss said. “Gage is one of the best athletes and citizens that I have ever been allowed to coach.
“He is not only a leader to the players on and off the ice, but Gage also is the kind of kid that coaches learn from,” Voss went on. “He is mature beyond his years.”
Looker, who started playing hockey at 4 years old, dabbled with football as a freshman although an eighth-grade hip injury kept him away from the field until this fall. Looker’s size – 6-foot-3, 245 pounds – led to many encouragements to give football another try.
“I went the rest of my high school career being told that I needed to play football,” Looker said. “So I said ‘why not’ my senior year because I could use the extra strength for hockey.”
Looker knew the morning after his one-and-only career football game that he needed medical attention promptly. A quick MRI showed extensive damage.
Looker was told he literally “blew apart” his ACL.
“My stomach dropped,” Looker said. “I was not ready for that at all.
“I was shown what my PCL looked like and then went to where my ACL should be, and it was gone — some say it was deleted,” Looker continued. “I was told I will not be able to play sports for about seven to nine months, and I was speechless.”
Two months after surgery and extensive physical therapy, Looker tried to skate. It went so well he began to entertain thoughts of playing hockey again. He may aspire to compete in track & field this spring.
“He runs a 56-second quarter mile and throws the shot put 48 feet, 10 inches,” Voss said of his dominating defender. “And although he is restricted from running, something tells me this kid will run track this spring.”
While it is not the senior hockey season it could have been without the injury, many are glad to just have Looker on the ice. His mom is among them.
“I am overjoyed to have him back on the ice,” Harding said. “At least he is getting in a few games and is out there making a difference.
“The smile on his face is priceless,” she continued. “Perhaps he'll continue with track as he is set to break records there too.”
Rehab fresh out of surgery was “very boring,” so Looker started intensifying his recovery with therapy four days a week for a few months.
“It was a lot of commitment, but I needed my senior year of hockey,” Looker said. “I was doing the basic things, and then I had a machine that could stimulate my muscles and pump blood to my knee.
“It is called ARPneuro,” he continued. “I was skating with that on my leg as well as doing mini workouts at home.”
ARP — accelerated, recovery and performance — reportedly accelerates recovery time by decreasing chronic pain and increasing range of motion without the use of medications.
“I was always putting as much work in as I could,” Looker said. “It definitely paid off in the end.”
Looker’s coach agrees.
“I have never heard of this, nor witnessed it,” Voss said. “Gage Looker is an anomaly, and in my opinion a different type of tough.
“Gage returned to practice full contact three months after he tore his ACL,” Voss continued. “And he played his first hockey game logging 30 of 51 minutes a week later.”
Looker credits the support and effort of his medical team and his teammates for helping him get back on track. However, no one gets more credit that the booster president.
“My mom and teammates helped me through it,” he said. “My mom was always on me about doing my workouts and keeping me disciplined.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord’s Gage Looker has returned to the ice this season only a few months after a serious knee injury. (Middle) Looker, right, watches his football teammates from the sideline this fall. (Below) Looker tries to stuff the puck past Tawas’ goaltender. (Photos by Rob DeForge/RD Sports Photo.)