ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Hockey players get used to people cheering when they score goals or make a really nice play in a game.
Alex Kupka received applause from his St. Cloud Blizzard teammates on Wednesday, Jan. 15, just for going onto the ice for practice with them at the Municipal Athletic Complex.
"They were so happy for me, to just to see me there, not even scoring," Kupka said with a smile. "They are like my big family here.
"This is like the biggest gift, like a Christmas gift, to be able to skate after this injury and be with the guys ... this is the biggest gift in my life right now."
Kupka suffered a broken C2 vertebrae when he was checked from behind into the boards in a North American Hockey League game on Sept. 18 in Blaine.
Blizzard coach Moe Mantha, 58, who played 12 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL, is amazed that Kupka is back on the ice.
"I was just shaking my head — it's just unbelievable that he's out here doing this ... skating around, shooting pucks," Mantha said. "He's got an ear-to-ear smile. It just shows the character of the young boy."
Kupka stayed on the ice with teammate Michael Beno, a Blizzard defenseman from Bratislava, Slovakia, long after his other teammates left the ice, skating and shooting pucks.
"It was like going onto the ice after summer break — my feet were so sore and my hands were so bad," Kupka said. "I started sweat after five minutes of practice, but it felt really good. It didn't really feel like I was off the ice for four months. It felt like 2-3 weeks."
It was four tough months away the game he loves, but there were some serious concerns about what kind of lifestyle that Kupka would be able to have after suffering the injury.
Player who hit him is a friend
Kupka said that he remembers just about everything when he took the hit. When his head went into the boards, he said that it was like seeing a television screen turn off. He remembered what his dad told him about what to do if he was injured in a game.
"My dad always told me that if you're injured, just go to the bench, so we'll know you're OK," Kupka said of his father, who was watching the game via an internet feed in Slovakia. "That moment, I felt the pain in my neck. So I moved my feet a little bit, to make sure I could feel everything.
"I stayed on the ice for awhile to wait for the doctor. I thought, 'Maybe this is just a concussion.' I told (the trainer) that I want to play again, just let me play. She was like, 'No, you just stay where you are. We want to make sure you're OK.' So I stayed there for 30 minutes, waiting for the ambulance.
"When the ambulance came, I still thought I was OK. But once I got to the ambulance, I started to feel a little bit of a headache."
Once Kupka got to the hospital, he said that he vomited twice and then he was told the next day that he was not likely to play again this season.
In an odd coincidence, the player who hit him is someone that Kupka knows well. The other player is Artur Turansky, an 18-year-old wing from Bratislava, Slovakia, who was playing for the Corpus Christi IceRays in the game. Turansky and Kupka had played together on a Slovakian national team.
"We're buddies and went on the same vacation in the summer," Kupka said. "I think he was much more destroyed (emotionally) than I was. I wasn't mad at him at all because I knew that he wouldn't do it on purpose. It was the first time we had played against each other.
"He came to the hospital the next day. We spent time together on Christmas break."
At the hospital, Kupka was put into a halo brace vest, which prevented his head and neck from moving as his spinal column and ligaments healed. Injuries to the C2 can be fatal or cause paralysis. The C1 and C2 vertebrae are located at the top of the neck, forming a connection between the head and the spine and control the movement of the skull.
Unbiased opinion.. but, I think we have one of the toughest players in the @NAHLHockey...— St. Cloud Blizzard (@Blizzard_Hockey) September 23, 2019
Good to see Alex back at the rink today getting some work done on the bike! @alexkupka4 #Blizznation #Blizzfamily #roadtorecovery pic.twitter.com/10gPo2tsdC
Will he play again this season?
When Kupka was placed in the halo brace vest, he was expected to be in it for three months. His recovery went so well that had it removed on Nov. 5. He was then placed in a neck brace and then had that removed on Dec. 3.
He began physical therapy shortly thereafter and then went home for the holidays from Dec. 19-Jan. 10.
"(My family) didn't even care about me getting back onto the ice. They just cared about me being healthy again," Kupka said. "They were just so happy to be talking with me, be back home and walking around with them and spending some time with them.
"They didn't even think about hockey. The main point of my life ... yeah, hockey, but to be healthy is the main point."
He skated for the first time since the accident on Jan. 3.
"It was with little kids and they gave me the opportunity to skate with them," he said. "I was just out there with my skates, gloves and hockey stick."
On Wednesday, Kupka did not participate in any drills that had physical contact. It would be a ways away, but could Kupka play in a game yet this season?
"You know what? With what he's doing now, I wouldn't bet against him," Mantha said. "They said he was done for the season and it's Jan. 14th and he's on the ice, skating.
"It's going to take some time to get into shape," Kupka said.
If he gets back on the ice, he will get back to pursuing a dream of playing for an NCAA Division I college hockey team. Kupka, who is a high school graduate, said that he is receiving some math tutoring as he prepares to take the ACT college entrance exam in April.
"I came here to get committed to a DI college and the biggest point was to get to St. Cloud State because they were interested in me," he said. "I so was destroyed the first week after (the accident) happened.
"Then I started to realize that a lot of people are with me and I'm happy that I'm still walking and alive."
Blizzard will honor teammate Alex Kupka, Alex suffered a neck injury during Wednesday night's game.— St. Cloud Blizzard (@Blizzard_Hockey) September 21, 2019
Our thoughts and prayers go out to Alex and his family during this time. The Blizzard and the whole hockey community are here for you as you begin your road to recovery! pic.twitter.com/awVDoMkdkW