ATTLEBORO — AJ Quetta is returning to the game of hockey.
It’s been nearly one year since he suffered a spinal cord injury that left the 18-year-old paralyzed from the neck down. His playing career ended after he crashed headfirst into the boards during a game for Bishop Feehan High School on Jan. 26.
AJ has been a source of motivation for the entire hockey community, so Bishop Feehan announced Thursday that it added Quetta to the coaching staff as an assistant for the boys’ team. He said he’s thrilled for the opportunity to return to the game he loves.
“I never really had a chance to say ‘goodbye’ to the game when I played it. I was playing, and then I wasn’t. Now, to be a coach I get another chance to be part of it and maybe I never have to say ‘goodbye,’ ” Quetta said.
Feehan hockey coach Dave Franzosa called Quetta one night and asked the Shamrock hockey alum if he wanted to join the coaching staff. Quetta then met with the entire coaching staff, and he decided he wanted to return to the program in a new capacity.
Focused on therapy
Since his injury, Quetta's main focus every day is to heal and walk again. He spends countless hours at physical therapy, but now he’ll be able to concentrate on something else.
“I have another part of my life that I can focus on now,” he said. “When it comes to PT and OT, and working out every day, that’s been the one thing I’ve been focusing on. I’m 10 months down the road now, and this opportunity came up, and it’s a great thing for me, and my family, to be involved in Feehan hockey. I’m just excited to get started.”
Quetta made his emotional return to the rink Thursday night for the final day of tryouts for the Shamrocks at New England Sports Village. It was his first day on the job as an assistant coach. He understands he now has to think the game differently as a coach and not a player.
Quetta was a three-year varsity forward for the Shamrocks and graduated last June. His coaching responsibilities now will include working with the forwards, assisting in breaking down game and practice video, brand building and program communication.
“It’s going to be different for me,” he said. “I’m not expecting myself to just jump in and get it. I still have that player’s mindset watching hockey. It’ll be an evaluation rather than making a mistake and fixing it yourself. I have to evaluate the players and figure out what’s going to be best for them, and what’s not best for them. It’ll take some practice, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Then there’s his role as the chirper, which is an art form for Quetta.
“I have a few targets,” he said with a laugh. “I’m more of an on-the-spot kind of guy.”
The last 10 months have been a challenge for Quetta, one that he’s faced with tenacity, drive and grit.
“My wounds have healed a little bit. It’s still raw. It’s still really fresh. Not every day is easy for me, but being part of this will help to distract me a little bit,” he said.
Quetta's father, Anthony, said he is grateful to the Bishop Feehan family for his son’s newest opportunity.
“I am so proud of this kid. I know I’ve said it before, but he is my hero!” Anthony Quetta posted on social media.
AJ Quetta's motivation extends to all the students at Bishop Feehan.
A photo of Quetta hangs on the wall in the workout room at Feehan. The school’s strength and conditioning coach, Mike Vitelli, posted it to serve as a source of inspiration for the student-athletes. In fact, each week Vitelli chooses the AJ Athlete of the Week for their leadership and dedication.
“For the kids to see him in there just helps all the athletes realize there are no challenges too difficult during training,” Vitelli said. “I’ve seen athletes walk up to the poster and give it a look, or tap, for inspiration. (AJ) was a bulldog when he was in there working out, and there’s definitely kids who have modeled their efforts around what he’d do if he was training in there.”
Immediately following Quetta's injury, the Bishop Feehan family, and the entire hockey community stepped up to help the Quetta family. Now that AJ is back in the rink, he feels back at home with the Shamrocks.
“The Feehan community is the most kind, the most generous and the most willing,” he said. “Whenever someone needs helps when it comes to the Feehan community, they step up. I can’t be any more grateful being part of Feehan while going through what I’m going through. Seriously, there’s no other school I’d rather be a part of.”
—Contact Joe McDonald at JMcDonald2@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoeyMacHockey.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: One year after suffering spinal cord injury, AJ Quetta returns to hockey as Bishop Feehan assistant coach