NORTH ANDOVER – Jace Hennig’s first collegiate goal last Saturday gave Merrimack College a one-goal lead in a game the Warriors went on to win, 2-1, over Holy Cross. Hennig now has the puck and the Merrimack hockey operations staff had it marked to commemorate the occasion. Just as was the case with his linemate, Brett Seney, on Friday, it’s a piece of memorabilia that probably sits somewhere in the players’ locker, or perhaps goes back home to mom and dad as a “thank you” for all the early-morning drives to games as a youth player.
For Hennig, who missed two years of hockey after a serious spinal injury as a bantam, it might mean just a tad more.
“It was a point shot, I think from Lash,” Hennig said of his first goal. “There was a couple of guys in front and the puck was just sitting behind us. Me and the guy I was tied up with, I don’t think either of us really knew where it was, so I just tried to push him off of me and get a stick on it and it went it. Obviously it was a special feeling.”
(Ed. Note — this story will appear in a future edition of The Eagle Tribune)
Hennig was tied up with a defender but fought through him, and another Holy Cross player, who was coming from the right side to score the goal. Given his story, it should come as no surprise that he’s battle tested.
When he was a bantam player back home in Port Moody, B.C., Hennig broke his L-5 vertebrae in two places after taking a hit from behind. The L-5 vertebrae is the largest of the 23 in a person’s spine, and is responsible for bearing most of a person’s body weight.
“I got hit from behind on the boards and I was on my hands and knees trying to get up and grab my stick,” Hennig said. “Then a player from the other team came in and jumped on my back and it sort of cratered by back. I was basically in shock. I remember freezing. My body was in so much pain that I just seized up and froze.”
Hennig didn’t see the ice again for two years.
“When you know Jace’s story, it tells you a lot about the type of player he is and what type of worker he is,” Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy said. “If you can be diligent enough to work back from something like he did, to me, that says he’s the type of player that can really be what Merrimack hockey is all about.”
Following the injury, he was in a body cast for about nine months, which limited him to no mobility from his hips to the top of his chest.
“It was similar to what Mason Raymond had,” Hennig said.
Raymond suffered a similar injury in Game 6 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, when Johnny Boychuk delivered a check into the boards as Raymond’s body was twisted and slightly bent over.
“I did nothing for about nine months,” Hennig said. “I had to wear that cast for 24 hours a day. I really had no movement at all. After I was able to get out of that cast, I started rehab and that really started with just basic movements. I had to re-learn a lot of basic movements. I gradually moved into stretching and then into yoga and thankfully after that, getting back on the ice.”
Merrimack has had similar stories in the past. Last season’s captain, Jordan Heywood, missed a year of hockey after being diagnosed with a blood disorder, but came back earned a Division I scholarship.
Hennig was just 14 years old at the time. While a lot for a youngster to take, there was never question in his mind he would someday lace his skates back up.
“There was a little skepticism as to whether or not I’d play again,” he said. “But I knew nothing was going to hold me back. I was too young to let something like that restrict me from doing something I love.”
Once Hennig was back in the game, it didn’t take long for NCAA teams to take notice. His first year in midgets, during the 2011-12 season with the Vancouver NE Chiefs, he totaled 52 points in just 24 games, scoring 24 goals and adding 28 assists. He was moved up to the British Columbia Hockey League as a 16-year-old later that same season.
Merrimack was one of the first schools to talk to Hennig, who was also recruited by Penn State and St. Cloud State, that same season.
“When I first came back in midgets, I had a really good first six months, and then I had some schools talking to me,” he said. “At that time, I didn’t really know much about college hockey so I sat down with my family and my brother, and he really helped by doing a lot of the researching on the campuses and what it was all about. I’m really glad I’m here at Merrimack.
“(Merrimack) was one of the first ones to talk to me. I was 16 when I committed here. For them to talk to me that early, especially right after what happened with me, to show faith in me after an injury like that was something I’ll remember. That was important to me.”
When Hennig first returned to the ice after a two-year absence, he said the biggest adjustment wasn’t worrying about being re-injured, but it was the speed of the game. It’s been a similar adjustment now that he has two collegiate games under his belt.
“The speed was a lot different than what I spent watching for two years,” he said. “Everything was going a million miles per hour.
“Here, from what I’ve noticed, you have one second less and everyone is a lot stronger.”
Wherever that marked puck now sits, many in North Andover hope it’s the first of many big goals for Hennig and his classmates. Last weekend, Dennehy paired Hennig with fellow freshmen Mathieu Tibbet and Seney, and in all, there are 10 rookies in his class.
“We liked what they were doing early on so we put them together,” Dennehy said. “I think they spend more time in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, which is a positive.”
He added after the game on Friday, “You watch them in the offensive zone, and you can see that they have an idea.”
Seats Gone for Merrimack-UConn
There are no more seats renaming for Saturday’s game between Merrimack and UConn at Lawler Arena, according to the Merrimack athletic department, but there are some standing-room-only tickets still available at the box office.
Saturday’s game will be the first broadcast of the season on the Merrimack Sports Network, with the game airing on WBIN locally and streamed worldwide on ESPN3.
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report as well as on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN