Brad Hornung was a remarkable person. He really was.
Hornung, who died on Tuesday at the age of 52, spent almost 35 years in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down after he was injured in a hockey game on March 1, 1987. Circumstances didn’t prevent him from living a life of courage and grace.
He was 18 and in his second season with the WHL’s Regina Pats when he was injured. A solid player with strong defensive skills, he was producing a point a game and was certain to have been selected in that summer’s NHL draft when it all came crashing down in the blink of an eye.
We got an idea of what kind of person Hornung was shortly after he was injured. At the time, doctors were of the opinion that he wouldn’t ever again be able to breathe on his own. He quickly proved them wrong.
“That was my goal,” he would say later, “not to be dependent on a ventilator to breathe. Back then, they were big huge machines.”
Eventually, he was able to get around in a specialized wheelchair. It had electrodes in pads on the headrest and he was able to manoeuvre it by applying pressure with the back of his head. Yes, it took him a while to master it. “I took out a salad bar one day,” he told author Roy MacGregor, who included a chapter on Hornung in his book The Home Team: Fathers, Sons & Hockey.
Even after what happened, Hornung was goal-oriented. He graduated from high school. He earned a degree from the U of Regina. He worked for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and then for NHL Central Scouting.
In an interview with Austin Davis of the Regina Leader-Post in the spring of 2014, Hornung said:
“The game of hockey has been good to me. It’s been good to my family. My Dad made a living in it. He loved it. I love it.
“I didn’t feel any bitterness or any anger towards it. I don’t think most people would be (angry), because I don’t consider myself to be any different than anybody else.”
Hornung spent most of the last 35 years of his life at the Wascana Rehabilitation Centre in Regina, where he had his own room. He didn’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.
As he told Davis, “I’ve had a full life here. I haven’t had any limitations. I’ve been able to travel and do a lot of things.”
On June 8, 2018, the U of Regina saluted Hornung by presenting him with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In addressing the gathering at the Conexus Arts Centre during the spring convocation, Hornung said:
“I am not a special or isolated case, because I see this happen every day. And we are seeing it in the recovery of those who were affected by the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy. If there is a moral to my story, it is that people tend to underestimate themselves and how well they would react to different circumstances.”
Shortly after, Hornung closed with this:
“The bad news is that unpleasant things are going to happen to all of you at one time or another in your lives. Sadly, that is a fact.
“The good news, however, is that you have the strength within you to face these challenges in ways you cannot even imagine right now. Happily, that is also a fact. And it is the most important one to remember.
“Congratulations on your graduation, and please don’t ever forget — even in what may seem like your darkest hour, there is always a place in your life for hope.”
So don’t be sad over the fact that Brad Hornung no longer is with us. Rather, be happy that we had him with us for as long as we did and admire him for what he was able to do with his life.