VOORHEES, N.J. – Just how much did Bloomsburg University student Jackie Lithgow appreciate what the Flyers did for him three years ago after he suffered a brain injury from a personal attack on campus?
Well, for one thing, he put on a pair of sneakers the team gave him and didn’t take them off for a year and a half.
“Except to go to bed,’’ he says with a chuckle on Wednesday at the Skate Zone.
The first time Lithgow visited the Flyers, he was confined to a wheelchair. The outlook for his long-term health was in question.
But a series of operations have brought him back to almost complete physical function and he has returned to Bloomsburg to complete his degree in mass communications.
It’s been a long road to recovery for the Carlisle native and the Flyers players, coaches and support staff are gratified to learn they’ve played a part in this comeback.
Lithgow, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Wednesday, gives his favorite team full credit.
“They were a major factor in my recovery,’’ he says. “I wore Flyers stuff throughout the whole time. (Head trainer) Jim McCrossin gave me sneakers and I didn’t take them off.
“My friends were like: ‘Those are getting worn out.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to wear them and keep on wearing them.’ So that was a big inspiration. And meeting the players for the first time.’’
Among the stars sharing a birthday cake with Lithgow were Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek.
All the players noticed how much progress Lithgow has made these last three years.
“He looks unbelievable,’’ Simmonds says. “I had to give him a big hug. I didn’t even recognize him for a second. To have someone say you’ve had that kind of impact on somebody. . .he’s a great kid. It’s just awesome to see him again.’’
Professional players know they can have that sort of influence on young fans but not all of them give freely of their time the way the Flyers have.
“It lets you know that if you give somebody inspiration like that, you’re probably doing something right,’’ Simmonds says. “It humanizes you.
“We play a game that we love for a living. It’s not always about hockey, it’s about things you can do outside of hockey to help people. Jackie is living proof. It’s pretty heartwarming.’’
Lithgow is just about up to full speed, which is nothing short of miraculous, given his state of health a couple years back.
“What I like to call myself is a better me,’’ he says. “I like to myself as better than I was before my injury. Because I’ve learned so much from my injury. I just think I’m more knowledgeable and I’m a better person because of it.’’
Jackie’s parents, Jim and Lisa, accompanied their son and the smiles on their faces told the whole story. They couldn’t be more thankful for what the players have provided.
Coach Dave Hakstol stopped by to chat. He works with young, healthy athletes everyday and appreciates how much influence a team can have on someone like Lithgow.
“It’s always amazing when you see his spirit,’’ says Hakstol as a chorus of Voracek, Simmonds and Giroux sang “Happy Birthday!’’ on the other side of the locker room.
“It (getting through adversity) just speaks to who he is. . .to see his family with him every step of the way. It’s pretty special.’’
The day after Lithgow initially visited the Flyers three years ago, his physical therapist noted a marked improvement.
“To have a chance to be a part of that (recovery), it’s a pretty special thing in life,’’ Hakstol says. “For us just to have the chance to be a small part of that is really something.
“For him to be able to get a little bit of motivation or a boost out of being a part of what we’re doing, it’s special.’’