Stevie O’Connor Overcomes Spinal Cord Tumor En Route To Successful Hockey Career

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by Jashvina Shah

One day in December of sixth grade, Stevie O’Connor was skating on the ice. His back began to hurt, and eventually the pain forced him off.

Instantly his mother, Lisa, knew something was wrong.

After all, she taught Stevie how to skate. She even pulled him out of school on Fridays when he was young, driving to a rink 15 miles away and paying a dollar for two hours of ice time. He had never complained of skating, and rinks were his peaceful place.

“Whenever he said, oh my god I can’t undo my skates or I’m not sure I can go on the ice, I knew, I just knew there was a problem,” Lisa says. “And I was scared.”

Over the next 10 days, the family visited the Children’s Hospital in Boston Children’s Hospital. Stevie underwent X-rays and MRIs until he found himself speaking with the head of neurology, who informed the family of a benign tumor in Stevie’s spine. He had surgery within a week.

“Stevie’s very, very blessed because this tumor was in a place where it could’ve really affected his leg movement, bowel control, bladder, things like that,” Lisa says.

After surgery, Stevie, stayed in the hospital for five days while he was unable to walk on his own. He returned to school in a month but was still unable to exercise. A week late he started skating and shooting but wasn’t allowed to participate in contact drills. Finally, six months after surgery, Stevie could practice with contact.

“I was having problems with my hip flexors and stuff from being so inactive so the effects of it nagged a little bit longer, but the recovery itself until the contact was about six months,” Stevie says.

Despite missing that chunk of time, Stevie’s hockey path resumed without issue. A few years later he was accepted to Milton Academy, where he played hockey at the school as his twin sister Sara.

 


 

Lisa, a former figure skater, ran the local Learn to Skate program where Sara and Stevie grew up. She wasn’t planning on teaching them to skate yet, but took the twins to work one day.

“They got very adamant and started crying when I was taking them to work so it became uncomfortable for me. I had to come up with this solution,” Lisa says. “So I bought them skates. I bought Stevie hockey skates and I bought Sara a pair of figure skates, which she threw at me. She was very, very upset. They’re twins. So I had to go return the figure skates and get hockey skates.”

Sara hated her figure skates, from how they hurt her feet to the pick at the top.

“I liked hanging out with the boys and doing stuff with my brother and didn’t want to do the girly thing,” Sara says.

After the two graduated from Learn to Skate, they began instructional hockey in the same town of Marshfield and Cohasset. Once they were old enough to play, she put the twins on a team together.

“They were very funny, very aggressive, definitely forwards, would literally wrestle each other to the ground on the ice to take the puck from one another and then use their hands to throw it in the net,” Lisa says. “It was very hysterical. And then as they realized that other parents, you know how serious parents are, didn’t appreciate that gameplay, they started taking it a little more seriously.”

 


 

When Sara and Stevie grew older, they split up and played on different teams. But they were reunited at Milton Academy, where they both played hockey. At the completion of their senior seasons, however, they split up again.

Stevie stayed at home for the year playing junior hockey with the Boston Jr. Bandits while Sara left for Babson to play lacrosse. Sara, who began playing lacrosse in middle school because Stevie had started playing, originally wanted to play both hockey and lacrosse at a NESCAC school. She considered taking a gap year but realized she would be happy with just lacrosse at Babson.

“It wasn’t that difficult because I was so close and we’re pretty good communicators I’d say, but realizing now that I’m excited to go home for summer and that we’re going to be able to hang out and do all the other stuff that I wasn’t able to do with him this year,” Sara says. “I think he probably felt the effects more because he was still living at home with my mom and I was at a new and exciting place. … It was definitely weird not going to school with my brother because half the time I’m known as Stevie’s sister but no one [here] knows of that other part of me, which was definitely interesting.”

Stevie struggled staying at home by himself following a rigorous prep schedule, but he handled junior hockey like a job, staying disciplined and attending all optional skates.

“Playing a year of juniors definitely improved my pace of play,” Stevie says. “I think the pace of play going from prep to the NCDC was, the speed of the game was definitely much more. … I think I’m better suited to play college now than I was a year ago just because I’m used to playing a faster pace of game.”

During that season, where Stevie scored 15 points over 42 games, he secured his college commitment. Interested in academics, he limited his search to NESCAC schools and spoke with Hamilton, Colby, Bowdoin and Wesleyan. He committed to Wesleyan, where he plans on studying molecular biology or biochemistry.

“It’s all about what you want,” Lisa says. “You got to tell people what you want, what you’re striving for, make sure it’s clear. So I think that that, no matter who you are, whether it’s in your academics, your career, hockey, I think it’s important never to give up. One of the things I’ll say that I’m really proud about Stevie is that he’s always trying to make himself better. He’s always trying to improve. He always makes sure that he has an impact on the team. Where can that impact player be? That’s the kind of kid he is. He’s going to always add value to your team, your relationship, whatever it might be, classroom, that’s the kind of kid he is.”

 

Photo credit: Hickling Images

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