BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — When Traverse City West plays rival TC Central on Wednesday, it could be the first time all season the Titans are at full strength.
With sophomore Erik Anton's miraculous recovery from transverse myelitis to play hockey a month and a half after being paralyzed from the chest down, West could have its full lineup on the ice for the first time this season.
"I'd say it's a miracle, really," Anton said.
Titans coach Jeremy Rintala said the plan is to see how much Anton can be worked back into the lineup this weekend when West hosts Gaylord tonight and travels Saturday to Big Rapids.
"He's going to be dressed and ready to go," Rintala said. "And if we get the chance to get him in there, we will. Saturday, same thing. We'll see how it goes. I'm expecting next week, he'll be even stronger. The kid's got an outstanding work ethic and he's working really hard to get back."
West will have its normal four lines dressed for the game, and Anton will be an extra skater that Rintala will try to work in tonight against a Gaylord team that has struggled against Big North Conference competition.
Anton has been shooting for the Central game as a return date for some time. And he's going to beat that by two games.
"That was my dad's goal when we first got home, was to be back for the next Central-West game," Anton said. "And I thought there was no way. But then like a week later, it seemed like more of a reality. And then I wanted to get back on the ice before that to get used to playing again before going right to the Central-West game."
Before the injury, Anton was on West's second line, along with Jake Saxton and John Linenger.
With Trevor Franklin — who returned Jan. 4 after missing West's first 10 games with a broken vertebrae from a car accident — and potentially Anton back, that changes things and gives the Titans two more skaters up front. Suddenly West has more solid depth.
"That would be huge," Rintala said. "We'll have to make some decisions. We've been playing most of the season where everybody is playing because we have no reserves."
Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by an inflammatory process of the spinal cord.
In Anton, it left him paralyzed from the rib cage down after just a few days.
"It's been really fast, going from being normal to paralyzed to now — a month and a half later — to playing sports again," Anton said. "It's kind of incredible."
His onset started Dec. 2, and he spent much of the rest of December in Grand Rapids recovering and gaining strength to return home.
"I got home the Thursday before Christmas," Anton said. "And I went to our team practice on Saturday and put on my skates and a helmet and tried to skate around. I was struggling. I had to sit down every five minutes, just to catch myself."
His legs — which atrophied while he was unable to walk — tired easily at first, but physical therapy, both in Grand Rapids and now three days a week in Traverse City, has seen his stamina steadily increasing.
The physical therapy concentrates on balance, strength and agility.
"It's pretty crazy," Rintala said. "He's just getting better and better each day, stronger and stronger. It's amazing how fast he's been able to recover. He's still not 100 percent by any means, but he's ready to participate for sure."
"One day he comes in and is barely walking and can hardly skate," Rintala said. "And the next day he can skate a little bit. He gets stronger every day."
Anton said the worst thing was not being able to walk at first.
"In the first week, just not being able to move my legs," Anton said. "Just laying in bed and losing eight pounds. I lost so much muscle in my legs, I couldn't get back to doing what I could do (before). I had to work on getting a lot of my strength back."
Anton played in West's first two games, starting on the top line in West's game against Lake Orion.
He was determined to not let that be his last game of his season.
"I thought it was just a pinched nerve," Anton said. "Something I could go to the chiropractor and he could just re-align my back and it'd be all good. But it wasn't really that way and just progressively got more and more worse. That was a shock."
For the last few weeks, he's been at every Titans game, sitting in the press box with his West jacket on and charting the Titans' shots on goal.
Now he'll be getting his own shots.