Thomas O’Brien returns to the rink after lengthy recovery


Contributed by Jack O'Brien

Following a severe head trauma injury on the ice, sophomore Thomas O’Brien underwent intensive therapy. Less than a year later, O’Brien has returned to the rink and the boys varsity hockey team.

Folders of hundreds of photographs each captured a different moment that demonstrated the tenacity, grit and camaraderie the sport requires, as sophomore Thomas O’Brien documented the boys varsity hockey team’s games this past year.

In one of these photos, a player chases after the puck and it almost appears as though he is flying. In another, two players collide into each other in celebration, as if to conceal their common happiness after a successful goal. It is a series of photographs that could have only been taken by a photographer with an emotional connection to the sport.

What is apparent is that the person behind the camera fell in love with the game and never questioned it again. However, it is not made evident how much the game has cost O’Brien.

On Jan. 19, O’Brien’s life was altered impermeably and forever. One night, in his backyard, on a small ice rink, O’Brien was skating when he slipped and fractured his skull.

“I don’t remember how, but I somehow got my garage door open, closed the garage and stumbled into my house. My dad was who found me in my basement. He carried me up the stairs, but then I dropped and seized out on my kitchen floor,” O’Brien said.

The next day, O’Brien was not present during hockey practice nor in the locker room before the game. Unbeknownst to his coach and teammates, O’Brien had been hospitalized and would remain under close medical care for a week.

Former boys varsity hockey coach Micheal Yanovitch said he received a call that morning from O’Brien’s mother, Kristen O’Brien, informing him that O’Brien would be absent during the game that day but did not relay any further information. Yanovitch said that while he understands unprecedented circumstances, it was highly unlike the O’Brien family to skip games. He said he began to worry immediately.

Senior and hockey player Emmet Teahan said that he had a feeling the entire day that something was wrong. While he said he didn’t know exactly what happened, he understood that it was serious.

“Thomas told me he would help me sharpen my skates that morning. I kept calling but he wouldn’t answer. I knew something must have been wrong, I must’ve called him 80 times,” Teahan said. “When we arrived at the rink, he still wasn’t there and so I started asking around about where Thomas was. I remember Coach told me he had a family emergency. But when I looked at Coach, he looked so upset, so concerned. Almost like he was mad, but not at Thomas.”

Yanovitch said that he spoke with Kristen O’Brien later that evening and she explained the situation to him. After hearing the news, he said he called for a mandatory virtual meeting with the team. Yanovitch said he gave them all the information he had, including that no one was sure what would happen.

“I have been coaching hockey for 23 years and that was the most emotional moment I had ever had in my coaching career. Thomas wasn’t out of the woods yet, we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” Yanovitch said. “I will tell you, I was more than a little misty-eyed as I spoke. I noticed some of the boys and the parents who also joined were feeling that as well.”

Sophomore Ryan Wilson, fellow teammate and longtime friend of O’Brien, said he was distraught during the meeting. It wasn’t until much later that Wilson was able to see his friend and that visit carried its own myriad of emotions to grapple with.

“I got to go over to his house one day a few weeks later. At this point, he was still asleep for most of the day. But, I just remember seeing him for the first time and he was still a little shaken up over the accident, but I just felt such relief seeing him. I needed to see him and see that he was okay,” Wilson said. “He’s a very tough guy but I was still so impressed with how he was battling through.”

Despite O’Brien’s shock and distress over what had happened, Wilson said he always knew that O’Brien would always find a way to return to the sport. Wilson said he credits O’Brien entirely for his interest in hockey and said it was O’Brien who inspired him to start playing.

“He was one of the few kids in my first grade class who played hockey and I thought that was so cool. From a young age, watching Thomas love the sport as much as he did, I knew I wanted to play. I started playing with him then,” Wilson said.

O’Brien was not able to return to the ice during the 2021-2022 season, but that did not deter him from showing his support to the hockey team. Yanovitch said it was very clear how frustrated O’Brien was since he was eager to play. The doctors urged him not to allow himself to get too excited or too angry, but O’Brien still attended every game he could. Yanovitch said that though he knew O’Brien was very hungry to get back on the ice, he put that all aside because of his love for the game and to support his teammates.

“I remember the first time he was able to watch a game, post-injury. We were playing in Framingham, and he was able to come into the locker room. There was the loudest roar I’ve ever heard come out of the locker room when Thomas walked in to say hello to everyone,” Yanovitch said.

Junior and hockey player Noah Gurdin said he had always looked forward to being on the same team as O’Brien. The pair shared a dream of being on the same varsity hockey team together and Gurdin said the experience, though brief, lived up to his expectations. He said that he always knew O’Brien possessed great skill for the game.

“He’s a big guy, obviously, and that suits anyone well in hockey. I knew that he’d be able to hold his own and not get bounced around. More than that, he’s such a hard worker. I knew he’d be able to deal with any adversity throughout the season,” Gurdin said. “I didn’t realize how much he would face, but I’m not surprised that Thomas persevered through it all.”

The O’Brien family have long supported and been active participants of the Brookline hockey program. O’Brien said that growing up, he loved going to all the varsity hockey games, watching his brother and the rest of the team. He said that envisioning himself walking in his older brother’s shoes and joining the other teammates filled him with a great deal of joy.

“I got to go from watching Jacob Gurdin and all the others as freshmen from the sidelines, and then actually getting to play with them was surreal. My dream was to join them on the ice and for a little while, it came true,” O’Brien said.

After the accident, O’Brien spent significant time in physical and cognitive-behavioral therapy to restore motor skills and ensure he didn’t suffer long-lasting speech impairment. Yanovitch said that through the years, he has observed the O’Brien family’s fierce resilience and unflagging commitment to the hockey program. He said he knew that O’Brien would find any way possible to be a part of the athletic department, as well.

“I definitely didn’t think there would be any reservation or hesitation on his end to jump into something and help out however he could. Thomas’s heart is blue, white and red as far as spirit for the school,” Yanovitch said.

That same spring, O’Brien reached out to boys varsity lacrosse coach Dan Gardner for a potential role for him on the team. Gardner said that O’Brien instantly gave the impression of a very humble and hardworking player. Gardner said that O’Brien attended all the preseason workouts even though he couldn’t participate. However, O’Brien quickly became a very valued and vital member of the team; Gardner said he contributed in any way he could.

“Thomas was, by any measure, a fifth coach and we treated him as such,” Gardner said. “When I say he was humble, he really was. I hate to say he was picking up ‘inconsequential’ tasks, but he really took on anything we gave him. If it was just before a game and the coaches were busy finishing preparation, Thomas would be running to the endlines picking up balls. If someone’s stick was broken, he’d fix it. If the guys weren’t understanding a drill, Thomas would step in and assist in demonstrating that drill. Even if he was never asked, Thomas would be on it.”

O’Brien will be returning to the boys varsity hockey team this season. He is currently involved on a club team and his doctors have cleared him to play. The notion of playing again kept O’Brien motivated throughout his recovery, he said.

“I almost lost all hope of returning back to hockey. We didn’t know how bad my brain damage was, especially given the significant swelling. But as we continued on, the work I put into recovery paved the path for me being able to play hockey again,” O’Brien said. “I’m just so happy to play again.”

O’Brien said that despite it all, despite the personal turmoil and strife, he would never quit playing hockey. He said he has never wanted to quit.

“Let’s just say, if I’m not playing hockey, it’s because I’ve been told to stop playing,” O’Brien said.