Four months after suffering a scary, life-altering injury in a seemingly innocent hockey play, St. Vital Victorias defenceman Reese Ketler has returned home. The 20-year-old St. Vital product spent the past 125 days between Winnipeg’s Spinal Cord Rehab Hospital and the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, where surgeons, doctors, nurses and physiotherapists worked around the clock to not only care for, but also provide Ketler with personal connection amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ketler suffered severe injuries to his neck and upper back that required surgery to help stabilize four vertebral fractures in his spine. He sustained a spinal cord injury and is ultimately paralyzed from the chest down, officially labelled as a C7 tetraplegic. Following the December 19, 2019 accident and ensuing emergency surgery, Ketler was bed-bound, spending significant time attached to tubing and high-tech machines in hospital.
At first, he experienced paralysis in his hands, but has since developed his range of motion through many daily exercises, practicing his grip and working on his overall strength. Over time, Ketler has progressed through many stages of physiotherapy rehab, occupational therapy and movement within his manual and automatic wheelchairs, while participating in various directed workouts, in which he has built up significant arm, chest and back strength.
With parents Trevor and April at Reese’s side for the better part of the first three months following his injury, the Ketler family experienced a significant change in hospital visitation directive, as strict rulings came into play in mid-March due to the worldwide pandemic. Forced physical and social distancing became a reality, as hospital visitors were originally limited to one visitor per patient, before a zero-tolerance, no visitor rule was enforced on March 19.
After five weeks on his own and partially due to the threat of COVID-19, Reese came back to his family home – by way of Handi Transit – for the first time since leaving for St. Vital Arena on December 19. The Ketler family has since begun practicing appropriate measures of social distancing under one roof while moving forward on the road to recovery.
Shortly after news of Ketler’s life-changing injury was made public, a Go Fund Me page was created in hopes of raising funds to help assist the family in purchasing new mobility equipment, wheelchairs, vehicle modifications and all other required medical support.
In mid-January, Winnipeg Jets forwards Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine visited with Reese in hospital and presented him with a full-team autographed jersey. On March 7, True North Sports + Entertainment hosted the Ketler family in the press box as honoured guests for the 4-0 Jets victory over the visiting Vegas Golden Knights.
“These past few days have been tough,” Ketler wrote in an Instagram post following the visit. “I’ve been experiencing a lot of pain, caused by a decrease in pain medication and increased workload in physiotherapy. My spirits were definitely raised when my two favourite Winnipeg Jets players came to visit me today. It was nice to have a casual conversation about hockey and my recovery process. These next few months are going to be the most difficult battles I’ve yet to face. This isn’t going to be easy but I know I’m not alone. It’s amazing to see all of the support on social media and it truly shows me how the community has my back.”
Ketler’s Go Fund Me page set a seemingly lofty goal for $250K in donations, but as news spread throughout the hockey community, financial support began to flood in. In just hours, the Reese Ketler recovery fund had hit $40K. After a few more days and a number of community fundraisers, the fund eclipsed the goal of $250K, set just one week prior. Currently, $297K has been raised by 2,500 individual donors through the Go Fund Me initiative.
Amongst many visits from friends, family and teammates, Ketler also had Winnipeg Blue Bombers running back Brady Oliveira and the Grey Cup in his hospital room on January 26. The Winnipeg ICE donated their Skills Competition proceeds to Ketler, bottle drives were held in Reese’s honour, while the St. Vital Vics the MMJHL and various other teams/organizations throughout the city of Winnipeg also joined arms in fundraising for Ketler’s cause. Despite a valiant effort, the South Winnipeg Kings Peewee A2 team also came up just short of winning the 2020 Chevrolet Good Deeds Cup – a $100K payout to a cause of the team’s choosing.
Now back at home and adjusting to life out of hospital, Reese plans to continue pursuing his business degree at the University of Winnipeg when able. He also maintains the goal of repaying those financially who have donated to his recovery cause.
To help assist Reese along his path to recovery, please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/reeseketler.
Ketler began his hockey playing career out of Norberry and Greendell at age five. He moved his way through the Dakota A1 programs, ultimately following the system to the AA St. Vital Vics. After one year of Midget AA with the Transcona Railcats, the six-foot, 195-pound defenceman transitioned to high school hockey and suited up for the Dakota Collegiate Lancers of the Winnipeg High School Hockey League, where he had six goals, 11 points and 14 penalty minutes in 26 total games.
Having the opportunity to successfully try out and then lace up for the St. Vital Junior Vics proved to be a dream come true for the mobile rearguard. Ketler broke into the MMJHL as an 18-year-old blueliner, who put up three goals, 12 points and 27 penalty minutes in his first regular season of play, before adding another goal, two assist and two penalties in seven postseason games.
Ketler’s 2019-20 season was off to another strong start, as he helped the Junior Vics to a second-place finish through the first half of the season. In his 20 games played, the former Winnipeg Minor graduate had one goal, eight points and 13 penalty minutes. His goal came in the form of the game-winner in a contest with the River East Royal Knights back on Thursday, October 17.
The St. Vital Junior Vics’ catchment area draws players aged 17-21 from the Dakota, Glenlee, Glenwood, Glendell, Norberry and Windsor Community Centres. The team has been made up annually of 23 players from the Junior A, AAA, AA, A and High School Hockey level for the past 45 years. The yearly schedule of 45 games sees roughly two games and 1-2 practices per week, fitting around the players’ university/work schedules.