Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey has sent an inordinate number of players up the hockey ranks, all the way to the NHL, and on every rung of the ladder along the way.
On Saturday at 6:15 p.m., at Planet Ice, many will have a reunion game of shinny, back in their hometown, for the local fans, and for a good cause.
It felt like someone had stabbed Ben Payne in the stomach.
Right at a time when his amateur hockey career was coming to a close, and he was going to the professional ranks in Europe, his health was failing him.
Payne played his minor hockey in Maple Ridge, alongside a stellar cast of hockey prospects who have made their way to the pinnacle of the sport. Then he went on to the Grandview Steelers of the PIJHL for two seasons, followed by a BCHL career that saw him play for six different teams. He then accepted a scholarship to play with Concordia University in the NCAA. After four years playing college hockey in Minnesota – the hockey heartland of the U.S. – he developed his game to a point where there were professional opportunities. He has French citizenship, and accepted a contract to play in the second division there. A hockey buddy from his Ridge Ramblers days, Cody Campbell, was lighting it up with the club Angers.
But after graduation, in May 2013, he became ill. He was misdiagnosed and treated for appendicitis. When symptoms persisted, and he developed and internal infection, doctors thought his appendix had ruptured.
On it went, pain and infection, until the day before he was to leave for France, when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease – painful inflammation of the digestive tract.
“I told them I worked my ass off for this, I want to go over and play.”
He was put on medication to try and manage the diseases, and gave it his best. But he was dropping weight – from 175 pounds to 160.
A skilled forward, his production wasn’t where he expected it to be.
“I just wasn’t enjoying myself – I wasn’t 100 per cent,” he said. “I had a few points, but I wasn’t where I should have been.”
He told the club he couldn’t overcome this disease, and they told him to go home and get healthy.
Payne was admitted to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, sicker than he thought, and did five weeks in hospital.
They found fistulas (holes) that had been draining an infection into his bladder, causing a secondary infection there, and elsewhere in his abdomen. If not caught, it could have killed him.
Medications and a liquid diet left him frail and skinny. He weight dropped to 141 pounds.
“I didn’t even look like the same person.”
Then doctors got it under control.
“Now, I feel better than I have in the past few years,” he said.
His good friend from Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey, Victor Bartley, went on to an NHL career with the Nashville Predators. He Skyped with Payne when he was still in France, struggling with Crohn’s, but was shocked at how bad the disease got.
“It was pretty scary to see,” said Bartley. “Something like that could happen to anybody, if it could happen to someone as healthy as him.
“Luckily they caught it in time, and hopefully fixed it,” he added.
Payne has been working hard, is back up to a chiseled 178 pounds, and is once again trying to catch on with a club in Europe. With his French citizenship, he will not count against the limits that European clubs place on foreign players. He’s looking forward to continuing in the game he loves, and hopefully seeing more of the world as he does.
He appreciates what he’s got.
“People battling Crohn’s and colitis – my heart goes out to them.”
He took part in the “Gutsy Walk for Crohn’s and Colitis,” and afterward, he and Bartley came up with the idea of a charity game in their home town.
“We had an idea to do a game, and somehow give back to a foundation,” said Bartley. “We came up with the idea, and we just kind of ran with it, and so far support from the community and various sponsors around here has been great.”
Payne adds: “It has all happened so fast, but it’s coming together nicely.”
RMMHA alumni can’t wait to reunite in their hometown at the end of each hockey season. A game of shinny suits the occasion. The charity game was a natural.
“We come back here every summer,” said Bartley. “We didn’t want this to get too commercialized, we wanted to keep it for families and for local players from Maple Ridge.
“We’ve got a lot of players that have grown up here and played here, and friends. We’re a tight-knit group. It’s going to be a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to it.”