Hope Happens Here: Denna Laing

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on July 10, 2020 # Hope Happens Here: 25 Stories

In 2015, Denna Laing sustained a spinal cord injury that paralyzed her from the chest down and left her with minimal movement in her arms; her life was forever altered. But, starting in the first few hours after the accident, an overwhelming wave of support from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, along with the NHL, the Boston Bruins, and the hockey community helped Laing sidestep the despair that can accompany spinal cord injuries.

Hockey was forever the heart of Laing’s life. She learned to skate nearly as soon as she walked and never looked back.

Denna and her sisters grew up outside of Boston playing in local leagues and cheering for the Bruins. The sport was a family affair; their father, Dennis, coached them while their mother filmed it all from the bleachers. Later, they’d review the tapes together, reveling in the joy of the game.

After playing for Princeton, Denna returned to Boston and worked as a victim witness advocate by day while lacing up at night to play professionally, first for the Boston Blades and then the Boston Pride.Denna and Will Reeve holding the Stanley Cup

On December 31, 2015, the Pride faced off against Les Canadiennes during the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium. It was a milestone for women’s hockey and a dream for Laing. But at the end of the first period, she crashed headfirst into the boards.

“I definitely knew I was in trouble,” she says. “I couldn’t move anything.”

The very next day, her family was on the phone with members of the Reeve Foundation’s Paralysis Resource Center to provide them with the information they needed.

“When I heard the news, I immediately offered assistance on behalf of the Foundation, and we worked hand-in-hand with the NHL to make sure that her family had all the resources they needed,” said Alan T. Brown, Director of Public Impact, Reeve Foundation. “Reeve Information Specialist, Bernadette Mauro, myself, and a family representative would have weekly calls to make sure nothing was falling through the cracks.”

Young girls, players and strangers from around the world filled her hospital room with cards and paper butterflies to boost her spirits. Old friends like Will Reeve, teammates and coaches flooded her phone with texts and messages. And, beginning with a call from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to her mother Jerilyn while Denna was still in surgery, the league embraced the Laing family with support that continues to this day.

A donation from both the NHL and the Bruins helped the family with medical bills, but there was also critical day-to-day calls from the front office staff, current players and alumni across the league continued to pour in.

“We couldn’t have done it without them,” Jerilyn says. “They weren’t just calling and sending their prayers—they actually physically showed up.”

The first to arrive was Susan Cohig, NHL executive vice president of club business affairs, who rushed to the hospital to be with the Laings during the uncertain hours after the accident.

“That’s the nature of our sport,” Cohig says. “Denna is part of our family forever, and we were not going to let her down.”

As Denna worked through nearly five months of grueling rehabilitation, the steady stream of visitors to her hospital room included legendary Bruins alum Bobby Orr and current captain, Zdeno Chara, who gave her a pair of bedazzled Bruins-themed heels. Bettman visited, too, surprising Denna by bringing the Stanley Cup with him.

Denna would later team up with former NHL player Bobby Carpenter for the Boston Marathon, drop the puck for a Bruins game and participate in NHL events where friends and strangers alike would seek her out to find out how things were going.

“I am very lucky in the fact that I honestly can say I’ve never felt alone,Denna says.

In 2016, Bettman presented Denna with the Dana Reeve Hope award at the annual Reeve Foundation gala, A Magical Evening, as a table full of league staffers cheered her on from the audience.

“Denna is a special young woman,” Bettman says. “She is everything that is best about our game. Like a true hockey player, Denna relishes every challenge put in front of her. It is impossible not to be inspired by her.”

What does such steady support from so many people mean to a young woman facing a new life? Everything.

In June, Denna became the 27th person to receive an epidural stimulator implant at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, as part of a research study that the Reeve Foundation has extensively funded. She and her mother have relocated to Louisville for the next year as Denna completes the intensive training that is a key part of the treatment.

To help keep her spirits strong while far from friends and family in Boston, Denna packed a bright bouquet of yellow flowers.

The flowers have been with her from the beginning, sent by the NHL in the days after her injury; since the intensive care unit didn’t allow real flowers, these are fake —but no less precious to Denna for the community they remind her of.

“These flowers have been with me everywhere I’ve gone,” she says. “We’ll see where we can go now. The sky’s the limit.”