FITCHBURG — Jake Thibeault looked around the Wallace Civic Center Saturday afternoon with the eyes of world-weary traveler returning home.
It’s not so much what one would expect from a 19-year-old, but with all Thibeault has seen and gone through in the past year and a half, returning to Fitchburg once more brought about the feeling of going full circle. Having suffered a serious spinal injury playing hockey over Labor Day weekend in 2021, Thibeault’s time at rinks has changed drastically.
Currently unable to walk, Thibeault undergoes daily physical therapy with the goal of one day getting on his feet again.
Thibeault watches the Babson College hockey team almost daily, but there’s something different about returning to his roots, which he did on Saturday for the second annual “Hockey Day in the ‘Burg.”
“I’m at a rink just about every day, but I’m not here very much anymore so it’s nice to get back here,” Thibeault said. “It brings back a lot of memories. I grew up here, skated here. … I know a lot of the coaches around here and their teams.
“Just being here and seeing people I haven’t seen since last year, it truly is an awesome day.”
“Hockey Day in the ‘Burg” saw three teams with connections to Thibeault come together for a tripleheader on the ice, with all proceeds going to the Thibeault Family Rehabilitation Trust. Hundreds of fans turned out for the first game of the day alone, a MASCAC tilt between Fitchburg State and Plymouth State.
Fitchburg State head coach Dean Fuller is a longtime friend of the Thibeault family, having known Jake since his youth hockey days. Along with Littleton/Bromfield head coach Kevin Lizotte, Fuller has been one of Thibeault’s biggest supporters since the teen’s accident on the ice.
“We had a lot of people here today. Supporting Jake is the most important thing we can do right now,” Fuller said following his team’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Panthers.
Thibeault is appreciative of everyone who has sent messages of support or made donations. But with Fuller, he says the impact made is even more meaningful.
“Not a lot of people know this, but (the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 2021), coach Fuller came to watch me play, just as a friend. I talked to him Friday afternoon and Saturday I was in the hospital,” Thibeault said. “He was pretty much the last coach I talked to (before the incident) and I think it was meant to be. He’s had a huge impact on me and has been one of my biggest supporters.”
Saturday’s event also saw Milton Academy, where Thibeault played prep hockey, hosting St. George’s and Fitchburg/Monty Tech — Thibeault’s high school program — playing crosstown rival St. Bernard’s. By day’s end, well over one thousand spectators had walked through the doors at the Wallace Civic Center.
“This is fantastic. We just want the whole day to go perfect for the kid. He deserves to have something nice like this for him,” Wallace Civic Center facilities operator Joshua Aho said. “You don’t hear him complain about all he has to do. And I know he looks forward to this.”
Now a freshman at Babson College, Thibeault has been embraced by the hockey team there. Far from where he started his hockey journey, he’s found his latest family on the ice.
“From Day One, I moved onto campus and within 30 minutes I had 10 guys from the team in my room coming to see me,” Thibeault said. “A big reason why I wanted to go there, even before I got hurt, is how much of a brotherhood the team is. You hear about that an its something you want to be part of.”
But for one day, Thibeault was back where his love for the sport began. And as it had last year in its inaugural edition, “Hockey Day in the ‘Burg’s” impact on him and his family was much greater than just the financial benefits.
“Emotionally, all these people here today have made an impact on me. It’s truly beyond words,” Thibeault said. “I say that a lot, but in the moment, there’s really no way to describe what all this means to me. I’ll always appreciate everything everyone has done for me.”