When Neil Doef was in Grade 5 at Chimo Elementary School in Smiths Falls, Ont., it didn’t take him long to notice how special his new classmate Brooke Henderson was. “You knew she was an athlete. She was always one of the best girls in gym class,” he says. Doef was no slouch himself as the school’s best hockey and soccer player. “But she was always very modest about her golf.”
From mutual respect earned in gym class a lasting bond was formed.
Henderson went on to become a prodigy of sorts, bursting onto the Canadian sports scene as a 14-year-old when she became the youngest player to ever qualify for the CN Canadian Women’s Open. A year later she qualified for and made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. A year after that, at age 16, she finished 10th in that same event, the most prestigious in women’s golf. The blond ball striker who grew up battling blackflies at Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club was like a fast-moving storm over Canadian golf.
Last summer was electric. By the time it was over, Henderson had reached No. 18 in the world, pocketed more than $700,000 in prize money and become the first Canadian woman to win an LPGA Tour event in 14 years when she blew away the field by eight strokes to win the Cambia Portland Classic.
Motivation has never been a problem for Henderson. She started off chasing her older sister, Brittany, herself a professional golfer, and now she has her sights set on reeling in Lydia Ko, the No. 1 women’s golfer in the world.
But her professional breakthrough was powered at least in part by thoughts of her old friend from Chimo Elementary, another member of the 150-strong graduating class of Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute. “It’s really a remarkable story,” Henderson says over the phone from Miami, where she’s training to start her second professional season, one that should include representing Canada at the Olympics in Rio as golf returns to the Summer Games for the first time since 1904. “It’s a real inspiration to me.”
While Henderson’s star soared, Doef’s climbed steadily. He made a name for himself in the Smiths Falls minor hockey system and eventually made the jump to play AAA with the Upper Canada Cyclones, braving the long, snowy drives required to play at the elite level in the Ottawa Valley.
As a 16-year-old he was good enough to get called up to play for the Smith Falls Bears, the local junior team, and made the club the following season. Last year—his NHL Draft year—he broke out. He was leading the Bears in scoring with 45 points in his first 34 games. By the time Christmas was approaching, the speedy left winger had received an offer to play hockey at Princeton and caught the eye of the NHL as one of the small handful of players from Junior A hockey to gain consideration for the upcoming amateur draft.
It was an exciting time around Smiths Falls (pop. 8,978). Beyond Henderson and Doef, another member of their grad class, Bailey Andison, was headed to the University of Denver on a swimming scholarship.
Dreams were unfolding uninterrupted until Doef crashed hard into the boards in a game against Switzerland while representing Canada East at the World Junior A Challenge in Kindersley, Sask., on Dec. 14, 2014. He fractured his C7 vertebra at the base of neck. There was trauma to his spinal cord. As he lay on the ice in the suddenly silent arena, he couldn’t feel his arms or legs.
He returned home Christmas Eve after 10 days in hospital. Henderson was getting ready to leave home to start her inaugural professional season, but first she went over to visit her friend on Christmas Day. If she ever needed a reminder that no future—no matter how bright—comes with a guarantee, seeing her childhood friend in a wheelchair was about as stark as it gets.
As she headed south to start her career, it was an image that stayed with her. “He had worked so hard to get where he was. He was on the NHL Draft list last year, and then to see all of that really disappear and not knowing anything about what he was going to be capable of once he got hurt, it was shocking,” says Henderson. “It made me realize how lucky I was to be living the life I am and that I love. It really motivated me and inspired me to be better and make the most of every day.”
It has worked both ways. As Doef began the long and gruelling rehabilitation process, Henderson’s determination to succeed was something that helped drive him. They spoke over the weeks and months, athlete to athlete, setting goals, working through setbacks and uncertainty, sharing a common language. “Seeing how dedicated she is and how hard she works and how much time she puts into her game and becoming a better player helps me, because I look at her and it makes me want to work harder and improve as well,” says Doef. “She motivates me as much as I may motivate her. It’s good that way. She just has that positive attitude and wants to achieve great things.”
Henderson had all sorts of landmark moments in her rookie season, and one of them was the day last June when she looked up from the 17th green at Pennsylvania's Lancaster Country Club, site of the U.S. Women’s Open, and saw Doef, well enough to make the seven-hour drive to show his support. “He didn’t tell me he was coming,” she says. “It was really a big surprise when I saw him—he did a good job staying in the crowd. It meant a lot to me. It was a highlight of my year, for sure.”
Doef had highlights, too. One was making it to the U.S. Women's Open for that visit. Another was being able to push his wheelchair aside and walk using only a cane for support. He believes there are more highlights coming. Princeton has honoured their commitment to him, an option to consider once he gets stronger. There’s that walking stick to put away for good. Pro hockey’s likely not in his future anymore, but he’s thinking of taking up golf.
As the LPGA season begins, Doef will be watching Henderson's progress, pursuing his own goals, and she'll be looking out for updates from him—just two old friends supporting each other as they work toward their next big step.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.