Even though Canadians really don’t celebrate the traditional American Thanksgiving holiday, Bill Vandermeer had plenty to be thankful for this past Thursday.

Even though Canadians really don’t celebrate the traditional American Thanksgiving holiday, Bill Vandermeer had plenty to be thankful for this past Thursday.

“I’m back on the ice Friday,” Vandermeer said, after a meeting with Missouri Mavericks coach Scott Hillman. “I can’t wait. It’s been so tough watching the boys from the press box and the stands. I want to be out on the ice, helping the team.”

When asked about the excitement level he’s experiencing, Vandermeer joked, “I’m glad it was Turkey Day, because I ate a lot and didn’t have any trouble falling asleep Thursday night.

“If it wouldn’t have been for the turkey, I’d have been up all night. Last week, Scott told me I might be coming back sooner and I was up until 3:30 a.m. I got a great night’s sleep last night, was at the Events Center at 8:30 (a.m. Friday) and skated around before practice.

“It felt good, really good.”

Vandermeer was accustomed to success and good health before he arrived in Independence.

The Mavericks forward was one of the Central Hockey League team’s top offensive threats when he was healthy, and this year he promised fans – and himself – that this season was going to be special.

That was before he left his apartment across from the Events Centerto help a buddy with some chores down in Oklahoma.

Vandermeer was pruning a tree on May 29, more than 20 feet off the ground, when the unthinkable happened.

He was sawing a large limb with a chain saw, when it snapped back and knocked him two stories to the ground.

“I had the presence of mind to throw the chain saw away from my body,” Vandermeer said, “and I fell to the ground and landed on my feet.”

He hit with such force that the heels in each foot were shattered.

The X-rays of his feet looked like sawdust. Surgeons couldn’t find enough good bone to drill all the screws and plates into place.

 “They had to use this liquid stuff, have it harden, and then go from there,” Vandermeer said.

“They told me I would have to learn to walk again and that I might never play hockey.”

He told them, “See you on the ice Nov. 15.”

When reminded of that comment, he laughed and said, “I missed it by a couple of weeks. But for a guy who was basically told he might not walk or skate again, I guess I was pretty close.

“After a while, the docs told me I might be back on the ice in late February. No way! I knew I’d make it back. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I mean, how do you learn to walk and skate and play hockey again in a few months?”

He never thought about it – he just did it.”

And when he returned Friday night, the emotions electrified Vandermeer, his teammates and the hometown crowd.

“What about that crowd tonight,” he said, as he hugged fans gathered around the locker room as the team auctioned off game-worn military appreciation night jerseys on the ice.

“That’s the type of crowd I remember from last year. Amazing. The crowd gave me chills.”

The fans felt the same way.

“I can’t believe he’s back out on the ice,” season ticket holder Jane Boeck said. “I know I’m going to cry when I seem him skate the first time. To come back from what he’s had to go through is just amazing.”

Garland Strickland, another local season ticket holder, added, “I feel like all the players on this team are my boys, I love ‘em all. But we’re going to have some special love for Bill Vandermeer tonight.”

Vandermeer’s teammates feel the same way.

“I can’t wait to skate with Billy,” said forward Nick Sirota, who will be on the same line with Vandermeer and Ryan Jardine. “We know how hard he’s worked. And he’s had to do all the work on his own.

“He watches us at practice, then goes out and works on his own. None of us can even have a sense of what he’s been through. We need a lift offensively, and he’s the man who can supply it.”

Coach Scott Hillman agreed.

“It’s his first night back, and we don’t want to put any pressure on him,” Hillman said, “but we need some offense. When he was healthy, he was one of the best in the leagues. That’s the Bill Vandermeer we want to have back on the ice. I know it’s going to take some time, and we know how hard he’s worked – and we all think he’s going to make us a better hockey team.”

Vandermeer has gone from 12 weeks in a wheelchair, to air casts, to boots to hockey skates in a matter of five months.

He would drag himself around his apartment during the day, as he hated sitting in the wheelchair.

He would force himself to do extra reps at physical therapy, and even wheeled himself over to the Events Center to watch the summer Fantasy Camp the Mavericks offered fans.

Now, he has to get accustomed to a new Easton stick (he had used Sherwood sticks the past five years, but Easton signed a new contract with the CHL this season), new line teammates and a newfound lease on his hockey life.

“I can’t even put into words how much I love hockey,” Vandermeer said. “To think that it could be taken away from me was tough, really tough. I have so many people who were on my side – my wife, my doctors, my rehab people – they’re my heroes. They kept me going.

“The fans, the guys on the team, Hilly (Hillman) and Brent (Thiessen, president and general manager) who told me that when I was healthy, they would give me a shot to earn my spot back on the team.

“I don’t want to get all emotional, but when I get back out on the ice, it’s going to be one of the most special days of my life. I have always given this team all I have.

“I think they know that, and that’s why they offered me the chance to make a comeback.

“I’m going to be nervous. I’ll admit that – but when you think of what could have happened after I fell, going out and playing hockey is a pretty good alternative. I could have been killed or crippled.

“We don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving, but no one has more to be thankful for than me.”

I watched Vandermeer crawl around his apartment – one time, to get me a soda. I saw him struggle with his walker, grimace because of the shooting pain in his heels and revel at his first time back on the ice.

His journey has been agonizing and exhillerating – the stuff legends are made of.

He didn’t score a goal in Friday night’s 5-4 victory, but he did something even more impressive – he played.

He’s been to hell and back, and when you make that journey, just lacing up the skates is a remarkable achievement.