Her style may be unorthodox, but she fits right in between the pipes. Brenda St. Clair can serve as an inspiration to goaltenders – and all hockey fans – throughout the world.
By Chris Kazarian The legend of the United League’s Danbury Trashers was cemented midway through the team’s first season in a game against the Kalamazoo Wings. That matchup was marred by a brawl that kicked off when Trashers left winger Brad Wingfield attempted to fight Kalamazoo’s Josh Elzinga, who declined the invitation. As Wingfield skated away, Elzinga grabbed the back of his opponent’s jersey and pulled him over his outstretched leg, breaking Wingfield’s left tibia, fibula and ankle. Word of the incident quickly spread through the blue-collar Connecticut city, which soon embraced the fighting mentality of the Trashers. And that’s how Greg and Brenda St. Clair were introduced to hockey, enough to motivate them to attend the Trashers next game and eventually become addicted to a sport they previously knew little about.
Since birth Brenda has suffered from spina bifida, an abnormality that causes an opening in the spinal column. So while Greg, 49, can walk, his wife is paralyzed, relying on a motorized wheelchair to move around. The constant sitting has led to excruciating backaches. Cortisone shots help her deal with frequent elbow pain. This summer, she took multiple trips to the ER for what she believes is a pinched nerve in her neck. None of this fazes the 47-year-old Brenda. “It’s all I’ve known for my whole life,” she said. The one thing that has given her joy in recent years is hockey. Initially, just as a spectator. “She would go there (the Danbury Ice Arena) every single day and sit around in the stands for a total of probably eight hours just to watch an hour of practice,” Greg said. Eventually, Donny Grover, a former Trashers defenseman, noticed Brenda in the stands and invited her onto the ice. She accepted and over the next two years would occasionally hit pucks around, even after the Trashers ignominiously folded in 2006. When Danbury became the home of the Eastern Professional League’s Mad Hatters in 2008, the St. Clairs quickly welcomed them. And Brenda was given a new on-ice opportunity when Mad Hatters’ goalie Jeff Hill jokingly yelled at her to “Be a man. Be a goalie,” to which she said, “Alright. I will.” What followed was a process of trial and error, with the couple purchasing equipment and constantly refining it to fit Brenda’s needs.
Because adult-sized chest protectors were too big for her, she initially wore one meant for children. There was only one problem: it wasn’t protecting her sides, leaving her exposed, and often, black and blue. So Greg stitched together multiple chest protectors – what he called a “Frankenstein model” – to ensure her safety. Brenda has cracked three ribs – her first time on the ice she crashed into the boards – and years later nearly broke her middle finger trying to make a save. Still, the joy of playing the sport makes her feel, in her own words, “on top of the world,” far outweighing any pain she has endured. “She forgets about being in the chair,” Greg added. Through hockey, Brenda has served as an inspiration for others, from children learning the sport to those like 25-year-old Eric Vogel, a fellow goalie drafted by the expansion Southwestern Pennsylvania Magic of the Federal League in June. Vogel and the St. Clair’s developed a friendship on Facebook thanks to their mutual interest in hockey. After he was drafted, Vogel invited the couple to Pennsylvania for training camp in August. Though the camp was postponed until September, the St. Clairs decided to head south, meeting Vogel at Ice Line in West Chester, where he learned to skate as a kid. “Her neck was really bothering her that night and she said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be going to get on the ice,’ ” Vogel recalled. Still, Vogel wanted something to remember the moment by, so he donned his goalie gear to take some photos with Brenda on the ice. After snapping a few, Brenda invited Vogel’s friends to take some shots on her. Soon, a 3-on-3 scrimmage was underway with Brenda, for the first time in her life, facing shots in a real game. “She was loving it,” said Vogel. “She had always wanted to play in a game and afterward she kept talking, ‘Did you see this save and that save?’ It was really, really great. She had tears in her eyes and was thanking us so much.”
For a few hours, hockey had given Brenda a sense of normalcy to which Vogel can relate. As he explained, “No matter what type of day you had when you go out on the ice for an hour, hour and a half or two hours you forget everything that happened that day and you focus on that black little puck. That is it.”