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Where are they now?: UMD hockey star's career was prematurely ended by strokes

Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey player Matt Christensen watches the action after playing a shift against Minnesota in Minneapolis on Feb. 10, 1984. File / News Tribune

Life was good for Matt Christensen and his Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey teammates late in the 1985-86 season.

The senior center from Hoyt Lakes had been an integral part of teams that reached back-to-back Frozen Fours and won a school-record 36 games in 1984-85. Christensen’s former linemate, Bill Watson, had set a single-season scoring record and captured the 1985 Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the top Division I player, while his current linemate was future NHL Hall of Famer Brett Hull. Just four points from passing Dan Lempe’s school record of 222, Christensen says that 1985-86 team was every bit as good as the previous teams.

“We had some up-and-coming stars and were very talented,” he said. “We could have started any line, one through four, against any team and been just fine. We did a lot of damage to a lot of teams.”

Then on Feb. 9, 1986, a Sunday following a home series against Wisconsin, with the Bulldogs readying for another run at a Western Collegiate Hockey Association title and an NCAA bid, Christensen and several teammates and friends were playing boot hockey outside Kevin Kolquist’s house.

“I shot the ball and dropped my stick, and when I bent down to pick it up, bam it hit me,” Christensen recalled. “I was sitting on the ice and I lifted my left leg up and it stayed there. I held my right leg up and it went down again.”

Teammates thought Christensen was pulling their leg.

“I remember having a good time, just goofing around on the ice with a bunch of guys,” Jim Toninato, Christensen’s roommate for four years, said. “I remember Matt falling down and we were all yelling at him, ‘Get up, Matt, get back in the play.’ He struggled to get up. He was trying to get up but couldn’t. He couldn’t speak at all, and the look in his eyes and his movements, we knew something was wrong. We had no idea the severity of it.”

Christensen remembers Bob Smalley, father of former player Kevin Smalley, saying for someone to call 9-1-1 because he feared the 21-year-old had suffered a stroke.

The diagnosis was confirmed after he reached St. Luke’s Hospital.“I was 21 years old and in the best shape of my life and I suffered a stroke,” Christensen said.

UMD head coach Mike Sertich was at home when he received a call from emergency technicians telling him Christensen’s plight. In turn, Sertich called Christensen’s parents in Hoyt Lakes to tell them the shocking news.

“You spent the next 24 to 48 hours not knowing if he was going to live much less ever walk again,” Sertich said. “That was a trying time.”

Strokes prematurely ended his career

Within that time frame, while in the intensive care unit, Christensen suffered a second, more debilitating stroke that severely affected his walking, talking and thinking. He spent 11 days in the ICU and then another three to five months at Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center in Duluth going through eight hours of rehab five days a week.

The incident meant Christensen’s hockey career was done. A draft pick of the St. Louis Blues after graduating from Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School, Christensen was considered a surefire professional.

“I thought, ‘There goes my chance of playing pro hockey,’ ” he said. “Who knows if I would have made it or not, but I had a good shot at it.”

Teammates and coaches believed so, too.

“He was an unbelievably special player,” said Watson, now a UMD volunteer assistant coach. “He probably would have had a phenomenal (pro) career if the stroke wouldn’t have happened. When I came to school, what a blessing it was to play on his line. I had an instant connection with him and Tommy Herzig and then on the power play with Norm (Maciver) and Tommy Kurvers.”

Sertich remembers him as a player with a unique ability.

“He was one of those kids who could slow the game down and make the play come to him. He could generate what speed he wanted the game played at,” Sertich said. “He was a good-sized kid, not overly fast, but he was smart. He had great vision and a great set of hands and a hockey IQ that ranked right up there. I think he would have made a good pro.”

Christensen briefly went back to UMD but needed someone to take notes for him as his right side was affected. Soon after, he suffered an appendicitis attack and never returned to school.

Christensen admits he went through a period of depression afterward.

“I was a little peeved,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why me?’ It took a while to get over it.

“(I was) drinking a lot; it wasn’t pretty.”

Christensen’s loss helped derail UMD’s season

UMD couldn’t recover from the loss, either. The Bulldogs dropped their final four regular-season games, beat Northern Michigan in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and lost on total goals to Denver in the next round. They finished 26-13-3.

“We didn’t do anything the rest of the year,” Sertich said. “I don’t think hockey was really important to anyone after that. It’s hard to say that because we were in the midst of (a title chase). It should have been, but it wasn’t. That shows how they felt about him as a person.”

Toninato says the team wanted to win for Christensen, but the experience proved overwhelming.

“Emotionally, it drained everybody because you don’t expect that to happen to a good friend and a teammate,” he said. “The emotional toll took a lot out of the guys.”

Though his right side remains weaker than his left, Christensen hasn’t had any relapses in the nearly 30 years since. Doctors never were able to pin down the reason for the stroke.

“There was no reason why it happened, as far as we know,” said his mother, Marjorie Christensen. “Who knows if he got hit in the head (in a previous game) or something, you never know.”

Now 50, Christensen lives in Aurora with his girlfriend, Roxy Polansky, and works as a track laborer for North Shore Track in Duluth. He has one son, Nick Lundgren, a senior-to-be at Duluth East, who played basketball and not hockey.

Christensen was named one of the top 50 players in UMD history as part of the all-DECC team and returned for that honor during the last home game in the building in 2010. It was the first time he had seen some of his 1983-84 NCAA runner-up teammates since their playing days. He was back with them for a 30-year reunion, the first for the team, Friday night at Grandma’s Sports Garden.

Christensen was a sophomore in 1983-84, centering an amazing line with Watson and Herzig. He finished his career with 76 goals and 143 assists for 219 points in 168 games; Derek Plante (1989-93) eventually tied Christensen’s total for second place on the all-time career points list. They sit a mere three points behind Lempe’s mark of 222 (1976-80). Christensen had 57 points in 33 games before suffering the stroke as a senior.

“I hemmed and hawed a little about coming, but I decided it was the thing to do,” Christensen said Friday. “I’m immensely happy that I came. It is wonderful to see these friends of mine who made such a difference in my life. I’m so happy to see them.”

“Where are they now?” is an occasional series of the News Tribune’s Sports section.