CHELSEA, MI – Neal Boudette described his friend and sometimes hockey teammate Bill Ellsworth’s fall as a freak accident.
The fall wasn’t the result of a malicious hit, but something that could have happened to anyone in the over-40 hockey league at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea.
Ellsworth was playing in a game in the league he had been a part of for decades on March 17 when he lost his balance, falling awkwardly into the boards. The 69-year-old Ellsworth, unable to move his arms or legs on the ice, had badly bruised his spinal cord and remains paralyzed.
“I don’t know that old man hockey is a super dangerous sport,” said Boudette, who has played hockey with Ellsworth since 2009. “Bike riding, jogging, skiing – with any of those things, you can have a serious accident. Well, this one happened in hockey and it happened to someone that I considered a friend.”
Ellsworth, who lives in Dexter and has worked at the University of Michigan in its IT Support Services for more than 40 years, has made many friends in his more than 30 years of playing and coaching hockey in the area. He’s played in two different men’s leagues in Chelsea and has coached women’s hockey in Brighton.
As Ellsworth undergoes rehabilitation in hopes of gaining mobility and liberation from a ventilator at The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, his many teammates and the surrounding hockey community are organizing a series of hockey games as part of a fundraiser to pay for his pending medical bills.
The fundraiser takes place from 5 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 13, at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea, with four games devoted to members of the coliseum’s Wednesday and Sunday night teams, league “all-stars” and a game of women’s league members – many of whom have been coached by Ellsworth over the years.
The event also includes food and drinks and features live and silent auction items that include vacations, a kayak, an apartment in Chicago for a weekend and a week driving a new Ford Bronco. The fundraiser also will auction off signed NHL jerseys of local players who donated them: Quinn and Jack Hughes, of the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils; and Cole Caufield of the Montreal Canadians, who lives in Plymouth.
Friends and family hope the fundraiser will keep Ellsworth on the path toward recovery from the C1 and C2 vertebrae fracture he suffered in March. Ellsworth underwent a procedure to put in a diaphragm pacer that sends impulses to his diaphragm to contract muscles to help him breathe. The diaphragm eventually will help Ellsworth get off the ventilator, Ellsworth’s daughter, Tiffany Ellsworth said.
While Ellsworth’s rehabilitation is covered while he is in Chicago, getting him back home itself will cost approximately $13,000, Tiffany said, making the support he’s receiving from the fundraiser and a GoFundMe that has raised more than $35,000 a “huge blessing.”
“He, for one, didn’t realize how many people are actually out there willing to support and be supportive,” Tiffany said. “It’s a gift to be able to have so many people who are willing to help come together to do that for you. We’re very thankful and grateful.”
With facility care costing around $300,000 a year, it has left Tiffany and her sister, Stacey Nye and brother, Aaron Ellsworth, to consider how they can help their father adjust to returning home.
Getting Ellsworth home is one of the objectives of the fundraiser, Tiffany said, and is just one of the steps she’s helping to organize, including getting wheelchair ramps built inside Ellsworth’s home. Boudette said some members of the hockey community have volunteered to help build the ramps, in addition to installing a full house generator.
“There’s so many things that we have to do and figure out and pay for,” Tiffany said. “(The fundraiser) is a really good way to be able to try to see if we couldn’t help offset some of that.”
Boudette described Ellsworth as a man of many interests and talents, with the two becoming friends after participating in the over-40 league in Chelsea before Ellsworth offered to help remodel Boudette’s bathroom. Later on, when Boudette opted to take a salsa dancing class at the University of Michigan, he was surprised to find it was being led by Ellsworth.
Ellsworth also is experienced in making pottery, with some of his work going up for auction at the fundraiser.
“He’s a great guy and everything and a really interesting person and he’s got these diverse interests, but the biggest reason why I want to help is that it could have been any of us,” Boudette said. “This could have happened to me. It could have happened to any of the players in this league and we all know that.”
Those participating in the hockey games are paying $50 or $100 to participate, with the money benefiting the fundraiser. Attendance to watch the games is free, with a dinner buffet and two drink tickets costing $30.