Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Utah Grizzlies coach Kevin Colley played in 16 NHL games before a serious injury cut short his career. Now he wants to get back to the top level of hockey as a coach.

WEST VALLEY CITY — After toiling in hockey's minor leagues for the better part of six seasons, Kevin Colley finally got his shot to play in the National Hockey League.

He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Playing for the New York Islanders during the first half of the 2005-06 season, Colley fulfilled a lifelong dream of being an NHL player and made a memorable impression on those that watched him play. Though he didn't score a goal or record an assist in 16 appearances, Colley quickly became known around the league as a fiery, combative personality that gave fanatical effort each time he stepped on the ice.

"I went into every game like it was my last one," Colley says.

Tragically for him, that mantra turned into a reality one wintry evening almost three years ago.

With his father, Tom, watching from the stands when the Islanders hosted the Washington Capitals, Colley missed Washington defenseman Jamie Howard while going for a check and instead crashed head-first into the boards.

Colley amazingly skated off the ice under his own power, but he was subsequently rushed to the hospital, where an MRI confirmed that he had four fractured vertebrae and that doctors were going to be have to put him in a halo immediately.

Just like that, his career was finished.

Colley's career went "from being on top of the world to being so down in the dumps," he says. "As a person, you can't really prepare for that."

However, while he might not have had any preparation, the manner in which Colley has responded to the setback has been remarkable.

After recovering both physically and mentally from the horrifying injury, Colley decided to return to hockey, this time as a coach.

And now he's again trying to climb the steep mountain that leads to the NHL, starting in Utah.

A year after being named an assistant coach with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, the 29-year-old is now the head coach of the organization, and he hopes the position will prove to be the beginning of a promising coaching career that leads him back to the upper echelons of professional hockey.

By his own admission, it took Colley a while to get used to professional hockey, but after bouncing around the minor leagues for a few years, he finally started to stick.

He helped Atlantic City of the ECHL to a Kelly Cup championship in 2003 and spent the following season in the AHL with Syracuse and Worcester. That's when Bridgeport, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, spotted him.

Colley played two full seasons with Bridgeport before impressing the Islanders enough to call him up. He made his NHL debut inside Madison Square Garden on October 27, 2005, against the New York Rangers, and even though he was subsequently sent back down to Bridgeport for a while, he figured out a way to get back up and stay up.

"I wasn't gonna let them send me back down," says Colley. "I was gonna be a good team guy and do whatever it took to win. When I got recalled, we started winning hockey games, and any time you start winning games when you're contributing, you know you're making a difference."

Colley certainly made a difference in his 16 appearances with the Islanders, and he enjoyed every single minute.

"I earned a spot every night, and it was a dream come true," he says. "I wish every kid that loves the game as much as I do could experience playing in the National Hockey League ... It was something special. I'll never forget it."

Colley remembers just about everything that happened to him on January 31, 2006, in vivid detail.

"Probably more than I'd like to," he says.

He remembers going to the airport that morning to pick up his father, Tom, who had witnessed his son's first and second NHL games but hadn't yet been to Long Island, where Colley's team would be facing the Washington Capitals that night.

As his nightmarish evening unfolded, Colley would feel incredibly grateful for his dad's presence.

When the play that resulted in his neck injury developed and Colley had the opportunity to check Howard, he instinctively raced toward him. That's when his life changed forever.

"(I) just went into the boards there, and I knew something was wrong," says Colley. "Obviously if you watch the replay, you can see I was really scared. I knew my upper body was numb."

He initially wondered if he had been paralyzed but was able to move his legs and figured the injury wasn't "too, too severe."

"I just got up off the ice and went for an X-ray there, and I wasn't expecting to have four fractured vertebras," he says. "Next thing I know they're cutting my gear off, putting me in a neck brace, and away I went to the hospital."

With his father at his side, Colley came out of an MRI, at which point the doctor delivered brief but grim news.

"The doc just said, 'All right, we're gonna put a halo on you,'" Colley remembers. "And I'm lookin' at my dad like, 'What's going on?' ... So they just loaded the halo on right then and there with me awake. That's a scary moment when you're gettin' four screws drilled into your head and you're awake, but they had to get it stabilized."

Colley knew as soon as the halo was attached to his head that his career was over, and the process to be able to walk again and lead a normal life ensued.

Doctors performed multiple surgeries on Colley and were able to stabilize to him to the point where he would eventually be able to walk again. Recovering physically was extremely difficult, but recovering mentally was much tougher.

"It was a slow process getting back physically, but mentally it took me a solid year," he said. "After the neck brace goes on, there's really nothing to look forward to. You're just kind of a sitting duck. You don't know where your future's going. ... It took me a good year to get over that mentally."

Throughout a half-hour interview in his office recently, Colley repeatedly goes out of his way to praise his family and friends for supporting him throughout the entire ordeal. From his parents, Tom and Diane, to his sister, Tara, to his tight group of friends and wife Stacy, Colley says he's received extraordinary support from those around him over the past three years.

"You see the people that love you are there because they love you," Colley says. "Just to have the support from my family and friends that were there is very special."

Colley moved home after his injury and needed time and space to recover.

"Going through an injury like that, I obviously had some depression," he says. "(My family and friends) just let me work it out. There's no pressure on the timeline. The doc said it could take anywhere from 12 months to 24 months."

"I'm sure I was kind of moody with them sometimes, but everyone understood the situation and allowed me to get out of it with them and move on. I owe it all to them."

About a year after the injury, Colley called up Bridgeport president Howard Saffan and told him he was ready to get back into hockey.

One thing led to another, and Colley landed an assistant coaching job a season ago under Jason Christie with the Utah Grizzlies, who are an affiliate of Bridgeport and the Islanders. Colley praised the Islanders organization for the way they've treated him since Day One.

"It just goes to show with those guys how much faith they had in me and how much I gave them that they're willing to give me another opportunity, which I'm thankful for," says Colley.

That opportunity led to an even bigger one just 12 months later.

When Christie left to become an assistant coach for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL near the end of last summer, the Grizzlies organization moved to promote Colley to head coach.

Colley hopes to get back to the NHL one day, and he believes that his position with the Grizzlies will be a step in that direction.

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"I think everything happens for a reason," Colley says. "But I feel like I'd still be playing (in the NHL) to this date if I didn't get hurt. I had my time in the NHL. It was shorter than I would've liked, but fortunately I got to live my dream and now hopefully I can get back up to that level one day, whether it be coaching or a (front-office) position."

Colley says he "couldn't be happier" about being in Utah right now, and he's looking forward to tackling the challenges that await him as coach of the Grizzlies.

"I've always had a lot of self pride where if I've set my mind to it so far I've achieved it," he says. "Right now I wanna get back up to the NHL. It may take five, 10, 15 or 20 years ... I wanna do the best at this right now and hopefully I can get back up as a head coach."