MABTON - When an act of brutality on the National Hockey League ice ended the rising career of Henry Boucha in the late 1970s, he thought his life was over.
The deliberate action by an opposing hockey player, which cost him vision damage to one eye, very nearly did destroy the popular young hockey player's life. Descending into a world of alcohol, drugs and failed marriages, Boucha had to fight his way back from despair.
Now in his late 50s, the Minnesota man, who was a member of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team which claimed the Silver Medal in the 1972 Olympics, spends his time promoting diversity and tolerance both in the hockey rink and in everyday life.
He related his rise to being one of the most outstanding young hockey players in the history of the game, from a state high school champion player in 1964 to a professional hockey "Rookie of the Year" in 1973, as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
Monday, he toured schools in White Swan, Grandview and Mabton talking with youths about the importance of education and finding the right path to walk.
"Traveling around the world to play hockey, made me realize what a great country we live in," he told the Mabton Jr./Sr. High School students yesterday.
"While I was traveling with the U.S. National Hockey Team in 1970, I saw a world divided by the Communist Iron Curtain, behind which millions of people were denied personal freedoms," he told the students.
Boucha, who grew up in Warroad, Minn., a small town about the size of Mabton, said, "We may have been poor, but we had choices."
He told of growing up before computer games and in some cases, even the availability of televisions in the home.
"We played road hockey for fun, honing skills, I'd later use in the ice rink," he recalled.
Now active as the chairman of the Native American Committee of the U.S. Hockey Diversity Council, Boucha travels around the country encouraging, promoting and seeking finances for increasing the involvement of disadvantaged youth in the game of hockey. He said, "I had the choice to succeed if I wanted to.
"The people living behind the Iron Curtain didn't have that right," he said.
"You have that right to walk the right path, to work hard to succeed in whatever you want to do," he told the students.
"The choice is yours," said the man who once earned a National Hockey League record for scoring the fastest goal at the start of a game. Boucha set the record in Jan. 23, 1973, at the start of a game against the Montreal Canadiens. His shot broke a 41-year-old record set by the late Charlie Cohnacour. Boucha was the leading scorer on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team in the games held in Sapporo, Japan, and is now a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
Boucha brought along his Olympic team hockey jersey, and several of his medals, including the coveted Silver Olympic Medal which he allowed the students to handle while he spoke.
Handling the medal still causes him some conflict. Not knowing how his professional hockey career might have ended had he not been injured at the age of 24, still raises questions for the man who was honored in 1992 as one of 10 Native American Olympians ever to appear in the history of the Olympics.
"Who knows what might have happened to me or how many more records I might have broken," he said.
Hockey, often considered one of the most dangerous of all sports, still is a game Boucha defends as a great sport. Today, Boucha works with youth in his community to teach sportsmanship and to help facilitate changes in the game.
His rise to the top of the hockey world is the subject of a new book, Henry Boucha - Star of the North, a book which documents his childhood and career.
Boucha said he and its author, Mary Halverson Schofield of Minnetonka, Minn., are hoping to make a deal to have Boucha's story made into a film.
"It wasn't easy coming back after falling off my path," he told the students. "But with the help of my friends and family, I was able to regain my focus and make a new career for myself and get back onto my path," he said.
"Remember that if you slip from your path, you can get back on it," he said.