When Debbie Bardreau-Wood got the call while working out at the gym last Saturday, she really began to sweat.
It was her son, Cole, a professional hockey player with a long history of injuries, setbacks and disappointments.
“His picture comes up on my phone and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, he got hurt again and he’s calling to tell me something bad,'” Debbie said.
This hockey mom had gotten those calls before, too many times, the most serious occurring in 2013 when Cole, just days removed from being a major part of Team USA’s gold medal victory at the U20 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, called to tell her he had broken his neck in a game for Cornell University and was about to undergo emergency surgery.
Nothing can prepare you for that.
But this call was different. This call last Saturday was the one a parent dreams of.
“He says ‘I’m going up.’ Up? What do you mean up?'” Debbie said. “You don’t even think the conversation is really happening.”
It happened, all right.
After a dozen years of youth hockey, four years of college, and parts of six seasons in the minor leagues — a total of 230 regular season games — Cole Bardreau, 26, made it to the National Hockey League.
A center for the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Sound Tigers of the AHL, Bardreau made his debut for the parent New York Islanders in their 3-2 overtime victory at Columbus, making it to the game with the kind of tenacity and heart that has made the former Fairport High School star a favorite of fans, coaches and teammates on every team he’s played on.
“It’s been a whirlwind, just very emotional,’’ said Bardreau, who remained with the Islanders on Wednesday with forward Leo Kamarov out day-to-day with an illness.
On Sunday, Bardreau was back in Bridgeport, on Monday, he was called back to New York, this time with a change of clothes. That night he attended the Jets-Patriots Monday Night Football game at MetLife Stadium with Islanders’ teammates. The Isles host Arizona on Thursday night at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“They got guys coming back from injuries and I’m not sure what’s going to happen,’’ Bardreau said. “Things change daily, I’m just trying to enjoy the ride as much as I can because it’s been a pretty tough journey getting here and you never know when it can be over.’’
Bardreau’s inspirational journey to the NHL, something certain to fuel the dreams of many young players, was capped by a day of stressful travel worthy of the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
He was finishing up lunch after a morning game-day skate when Bridgeport’s coach and assistant general manager called to tell him he was being summoned to Columbus, 600 miles away. There was no time to swing by his apartment for clothes, he needed to get back to the rink, grab his gear and head to JFK Airport, a car service would be waiting.
“I was wearing jogger’s sweat pants and sneakers,’’ Bardreau said. “Luckily our trainer (in Bridgeport) gave me a blazer so I didn’t look that bad. It was crazy. I missed my first flight due to security and got to Columbus at 5:15.’’
He arrived at Nationwide Arena with less than 90 minutes to spare before game time, enough leeway to visit with Islanders coach Barry Trotz, get dressed and hit the ice. As tradition, he got to skate two laps solo with two shots into an empty net before joined by the rest of the team.
“They usually do that with rookies, a little rite of passage,’’ Bardreau said. “I’d say that was the most nervous I was the entire game. I just didn’t want to fall. A lot was going through my head there. But I can’t say enough for how nice the guys were. They, the coaches, trainers, all went out of their way to just say ‘Relax, have fun and enjoy it.’ That takes a big burden off you.”
For his part, Bardreau didn’t disappoint.
A player whose speed and grit are effective in a defensive role, he played 15 shifts, threw three hits, and earned 8:54 of ice time, including some on the penalty killing unit. At one point, he tussled with Blue Jackets’ defenseman Markus Nutivaara in front of the net, knocking Nutivaara to the ice with one arm.
“That felt good, that’s what I have to bring to my game,’’ said Bardreau, who has scored 98 points, including 41 goals, in his AHL career.
For Bardreau, it was a long way from Jan. 19, 2013, when he crashed into the corner boards playing for Cornell in a game at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, breaking his C-7 vertebra in two places. He had come dangerously close to being paralyzed, and doctors could not guarantee he’d play hockey again.
But three months in a neck brace, six more in rehabilitation and the love and support of family and friends from a lifetime got him through those difficult times.
He played two more seasons for Cornell and then began his professional career with the Philadelphia Flyers organization, playing for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Bardreau, who signed a two-way deal with the Islanders in July, confided that there have been many times when he felt alone, recovering from injuries, getting passed over for recalls, traveling long bus rides and wondering if he’d ever make it to “The Show.” But last weekend, his phone blew up with congratulatory text messages, most of them from “585.”
Dozens of people on Twitter expressed how happy they were for him.
“It seems that’s been the cycle, build myself up to a point where my confidence is back and I felt I was close to fulfilling my dream, and then some major setback would happen in one form or another,’’ Bardreau said. “At times, it’s a long journey and you think nobody is realizing the struggle you’re going through. But I got over 150 texts from people from all stages of my career, and just my life in general, not hockey-related, saying nobody deserves it more. For people to recognize that, it meant a lot to me.”
His making it to the NHL means a lot to the close-knit Rochester hockey community.
Bardreau joined the likes of Rory Fitzpatrick, Jason Bonsignore, Ryan Callahan, Brian Gionta, Stephen Gionta, Shane Prince, Derek Whitmore and Marty Reasoner, the Islanders’ head of player development.
Cole lived in four states (New Hampshire, North Carolina, New York, Michigan) growing up. His folks split just before junior high but Debbie, who is remarried and living in Oswego, his dad, Scott, who lives in Dallas, and older brother, Nick, an Army veteran living in Las Vegas, remain his biggest fans.
Debbie moved from Auburn, Cayuga County, her hometown, to Fairport when Cole was a freshman in high school so he could pursue a higher level of hockey.
“I always put Rochester as my hometown, because that’s where I feel at home,’’ Bardreau said. “I can’t say enough good things, even all my friends’ parents helping me out along the way. I’m forever grateful for Rochester.’’
It’s where he won a Section V title in 2008 and a state championship with the Rochester Alliance Midget 16U team before moving on to the elite National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“The Rochester community has been unbelievable to us from day one,’’ Debbie said. “They’ve shown up at Cornell games, they’ve shown up at Rochester Americans games when he played for the Phantoms. So many in the community have touched our lives as part of this journey.’’
One where mom commuted to her job back in Auburn each day so her boy could pursue his goals.
“All I can say to parents is that if your kids have a dream and they’re the ones getting up in the morning, they’re the ones leading the show and loving it, and you’re not getting them out of bed and yelling ‘Let’s go,’ then you just support them,’’ Debbie said. “Cole, he just never quit and he’s an inspiration to me.’’
After hearing Bardreau was going to skate for the Islanders on Saturday, some of his high school chums gathered at the ice rink in Fairport to watch on television.
“They were freaking out for me,’’ Cole said.
If he can stick with the Islanders, more “freak outs’’ are in store. And imagine this — the Islanders play at the Buffalo Sabres on Nov. 2. Sabres Jake McCabe and Jimmy Vesey, teammates from that special World Junior team, would be so glad to see him.
“It was never about the millions of dollars you can make, or status, I just wanted that one NHL game to make it all worth it,’’ Bardreau said. “Now that I’ve hit that goal, I’ll have to adjust things. They say it’s always easier to get here than to stay, but for now I’m just soaking it in.’’
When Cole Bardreau calls up the hockey data base, “NHL’’ is now on his bio. He’s broken the ice. Nobody deserves it more.