Before ever stepping on the ice at Messa Rink, Union College hockey forward Kevin Shier had a fan in New York Army National Guard Capt. Timothy Neild.
On Saturday, Neild finally got to meet in person the freshman who helped save him from his burning pickup truck last December after it struck a concrete barrier on the New York State Thruway in suburban Syracuse. The two first connected on Facebook in February.
“I wouldn’t be here today — or at all — had Kevin Shier not done what he did,” Neild said during a press conference before the Dutchmen’s match against Princeton, “and it’s so incredible to finally meet him.”
Shier and his father, Peter, of Toronto, had stopped in Syracuse the night of Dec. 8 to get some rest before heading to Union for a visit. Shortly after getting on the Thruway, they came upon the accident. Shier helped another man pull Neild from the truck after another man cut the seat belt — moments before the truck exploded. At the time, Shier was playing for an Ontario Junior Hockey League team and would later commit to Union College.
Neild walked slowly to center ice Saturday to pin the New York Conspicuous Service Medal onto Shier’s jersey. The medal is the second highest honor presented by the New York Army National Guard, after the Medal of Valor. Then, he joined Shier in dropping the puck.
“He’s an incredible young man, and I look forward to seeing his games in the future,” said Neild, a Guilderland resident who was joined at Messa Rink by his wife, Beth, their 3-year-old daughter, Cate, and other family members. “I’m a Union hockey fan now and will be for life.”
As he left the ice and walked around the outside of the rink, Neild, who served in Afghanistan, was greeted with handshakes from adoring Union fans. One man, Howard Vinick, reached over the railing, shook his hand and thanked him for his service.
“It’s just amazing to see the people that come in here,” said Vinick, a Niskayuna resident who studied at Union College for two years in the 1970s.
He also said Shier is an example of the well-rounded athletes that contribute to the acronym U.S.A. — Union Scholastic Athletes.
“I think it’s absolutely incredible,” he said of Shier’s actions.
After the game — which Union won, 6-1 — Shier said the experience was “pretty life-changing.”
“It was pretty surreal up until six months ago or so, and very surreal up until we found out that Capt. Neild was OK and he was recovering well,” he said. “It changed my life, for sure.
“It’s been kind of emotional. It was nice to meet Capt. Neild to kind of, not give it closure, but to solidify what had happened.”
Shier didn’t figure in the scoring, but Union coach Rick Bennett was pleased with his effort. Shier has two assists in nine games.
“I thought tonight was his best outing,” Bennett said. “He had an extra gear here tonight. Hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Neild and Shier share more than a life-changing experience; they share a love for hockey, something they discussed Saturday. Neild said he grew up playing pond hockey in his hometown, Candor, in the Southern Tier. He even started playing sled hockey at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he continues to recover.
“We were able to walk through their facilities here, and it’s incredible what they have,” Neild said.
Shier’s father, Peter, said the events of last year came back quickly Saturday.
“For something that happens that is so intense and is so personal, we still had not met him,” he said, “so today was a good day for Kevin, and for me, too, to be honest, because the last time we met him, he was being wheeled away in an ambulance and he was unconscious.”
Neild recalled what he could of the accident, which left him with severe burns on his right arm, hand and knee and two broken legs. Because of the burns, Neild had to have portions of three fingers removed.
The first memory of that morning came a month after the accident, weeks after he awoke from an 11-day induced coma.
“I had a memory from that morning come to be in about January of me driving down one of those backroads before I got onto the Thruway, but that was probably an hour or so before the accident, and that’s it,” he said, “just a snippet.”
He continues to recover, but said he is no longer focused on the wounds, which took until July to heal.
“I’m focused on living again, and this is living right now,” he said, smiling through tears. “This is one of the best days of my life.”
Gazette sportswriter Ken Schott contributed to this report