Sterzer's story — the fire behind the Blazer
Aspen Sterzer can still remember his head scraping along the cold concrete, his family’s flipped SUV screeching, squealing and grinding to a halt.
“I had no real skin on the top of my forehead, a hole in my hand and I had lost a lot of blood,” said Aspen, an 18-year-old Kamloops Blazers’ forward who was 12 when his life changed forever.
It was a cold November day in 2006.
Poor road conditions and black ice caused the Sterzer family matriarch, Franci, 33 at the time, to lose control of the vehicle just south of Canal Flats, the family’s hometown that sits halfway between Cranbrook and Invermere.
She was pinned against the roof of the SUV, her seatbelt making it impossible to move, and just as hard to breathe.
“My lungs both collapsed, not at the same time, thank goodness,” said Franci, whose eldest child, daughter Sierra, and youngest son, Mapston, escaped the wreckage with minor cuts and bruises.
“I broke a ton of ribs. My scalp was torn off. My ear was torn off. I was a complete disaster. My hand looked like it had gone through a meat grinder.”
Aspen was rushed to hospital in Cranbrook, while Franci, who paramedics believed to have suffered a spinal-cord injury, was flown to Calgary and taken to Foothills Medical Centre.
The phone rang at the Sterzer household minutes after the accident.
Karl, the family’s loving father, picked up — it turned out to be the call from hell, one no dad should ever receive.
As it turned out, the paramedics were right — Franci had suffered a spinal-cord injury and she was clinging to life, barely holding on.
“I remember saying goodbye to my mom was the hardest and watching my dad have to say goodbye to the woman he loved and the mother of his children,” said Aspen, who was rushed to Calgary a day after the accident, doctors not knowing how much time his mom had left.
“It’s really the mental stuff you have to go through as a child that you don’t wish on anybody.”
Franci had surgery after surgery and fought tooth and nail to keep breathing.
“I almost died many, many, many times, but the one day in particular, my lungs were collapsing again and I told my husband I was ready to quit,” said Franci, fighting back tears as she told her story.
“I was done. I was like, you know, saying goodbye, and he just got super mad at me and he’s like, ‘You cannot quit on me. You’re not going to quit. You’re going to get in there and you’re going to try harder.’”
That’s exactly what she did.
After eight gruelling months in hospital, Franci was released, left to come to terms with a new normal.
She walked for the last time that fateful winter morning, darting down the driveway, doing her best to get the kids to school on time.
Franci — once an athlete extraordinaire — is a quadriplegic, with very limited motion in her arms and hands.
In no way is Franci thankful the accident happened — “ . . . maybe that will come down the road,” she said — but she is happy to be alive.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be grateful because I will forever want to run, I will forever want to, you know, bike ride, swim, everything, play hockey but, at the same time, I do feel like there’s been a lot of blessings that have been hidden.”
For example, she was able to watch her son score last season in what’s known around Kamloops simply as Game 6.
Aspen fired a wrist-shot, blocker side, past Portland netminder Mac Carruth at Interior Savings Centre, contributing to what many believe is the greatest comeback in Blazers’ history.
Had she given up in hospital, Franci would not be able to spend time with Karl, who also helped her beat thyroid cancer in 2003.
The second person to the scene of the accident was, as luck would have it, the Sterzer family doctor, Bob Niedermayer, father of former NHLers Scott and Rob.
Because she didn’t quit that day, the mother of three was able to thank Bob for playing his part in saving her life.
Franci is a Type 1 diabetic, something paramedics might never have known had Dr. Niedermayer not been there.
She is a strong, strong woman and an inspiration to her children, although, at times, Franci wishes her children had other motivation than such tragic circumstance.
“Aspen says I’m the reason he skates as hard as he does and works as hard as he does,” Franci said.
“When he thinks he wants to get tired in the third period when everyone’s down, Aspen’s got more energy than anyone.
“He just thinks of me and knows how badly I’d love to be able to get that one more shift.”
Franci is a co-founder of the first-ever women’s hockey program in Canal Flats, so she knew how to get around the ice.
Six years removed from the accident, Aspen still picks tiny shards of glass out of his head and suffers from headaches, causing him to occasionally remove his helmet when on the bench.
He turned to hockey as an escape immediately after the wreck, taping his nerve-damaged hand to the stick.
“When I finally got the cast off, I was crying. I had so much passion for the game,” Aspen said.
“I didn’t know how I was going to hold a hockey stick or play any more.
“My dad told me we’d do rehab and get me through it.”
Blazer trainer Colin (Toledo) Robinson — who has seen a lot of players come and go throughout his 17-year career — said Aspen is “one of the top-five guys we’ve ever had.”
Robinson said the young forward is a “Tasmanian Devil on the ice” and a perfect role-model for his own child, likening Sterzer to Jarret Stoll.
“That should tell you the type of character he has,” Robinson said.
Aspen rarely talks about the accident.
He’s not looking for anyone to feel sorry for him.
The speedster is thrilled to be a Blazer and happy his mom is around to watch him play.
“We weren’t sure if she was going to pull through or if we were ever going to see her again,” Aspen said.
“I’m just happy knowing I didn’t lose a loved one that day and so thankful I still have my family.”
Click here for the online radio edition of the Sterzers' story, courtesy of CBC Radio Kamloops.