Kurt Gengenbach

BA ’96

Gengenbach shoots for his goals

Kurt Gengenbach.Kurt’s story is one of inspiration and determination. Upon graduation from high school, he had plans to attend university and keep playing the sport he loved – hockey. However, in January 1989, during his Grade 12 school year, his world changed. While playing hockey, he lost the edge of his skates and tripped head first into the boards.

It was a freak accident,

Kurt explains.

As a result of the accident, Kurt is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. However, this did not stop him from pursuing his goal of attending university. In 1996, he earned a liberal arts degree from the University of Waterloo and then went on to study sport and event marketing at George Brown College. Currently, Kurt is the fundraising coordinator for the Canadian Pain Society, as well as a member of the sales team for Barefoot Science, a shoe insole company.

Can you tell us why you chose Waterloo and what are some of your fondest memories?

At the time I was applying to universities, there were only two in Ontario that were wheelchair accessible – the University of Waterloo and Carlton University. I chose Waterloo for various reasons. It has always had a great reputation, and I was particularly interested in the co-op opportunity, to actually work in fields that I had interest in. I guess the other factor was the closeness to home; I entered university in 1990 and was still adapting to my disability. Considering everything that happened over those two years, it was comforting to know that family was relatively close by.

In terms of my fondest memories, it has to go back to the Bombshelter. It was a great place to gather with friends and have a great time!

What was life like on campus as a student with a disability?

I lived in Village One the entire time that I was at uWaterloo. Living in residence all those years was great in terms of meeting new people every year and being close to everything. There were around eight or nine other guys with physical disabilities, as well as a couple of girls. I lived in South One, as that was one of the accessible houses, and attendant care services were offered by the Independent Living Centre. It was great in terms of being able to live on campus and to get to classes easily. I certainly remember trudging through the snow from the Village to get to class like everyone else. You've gotta do what you've gotta do! I remember other students giving me a push if I needed it, which unfortunately happened once in awhile during those bitter winters. After a couple of years, the university purchased a van to get us to classes during the bad weather.

In terms of accessibility, uWaterloo was incredible. But I also remember the professors being extremely accommodating, too. I had one class that wasn’t accessible, so the professor met with me every two weeks to discuss the class. I was also able to write exams at the Office for Persons with Disabilities, which helped in terms of my being able to either use my own computer equipment or to do exams orally. People were always willing to lend a hand if I needed it.

Ironically, my greatest memory as a student with a disability was the fact that I never had to line up for the Bombshelter! In the early 90s, there were steps leading into it, so it seemed like everybody was my friend when it came time to head to the Shelter!

Your first job was with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA). What was that like?

To be honest, I'm really lucky to have landed that job right out of university. I think I applied to about 50 sports-related organizations, and they were the only ones to grant me an interview. It obviously went well!  But it certainly was a nice perk - meeting NHL players, both current and past. I was with the NHLPA for about five years, so I was able to cultivate a lot of great personal and working relationships with players and am still working with a lot of the guys in different ways. They're just regular guys, who are fortunate enough to get paid to play hockey. Working for such a highly-regarded organization was definitely a great experience.

You left the NHL Players Association and created a campaign called Shoot for the Cure. Tell us about that.

While working at the NHLPA, I'd often read newspaper clippings from around the league. One day I was reading an article in which Wayne Gretzky was discussing the issue about checking in hockey, and one of his quotes basically described exactly how my accident occurred. That's when I realized that I could offer something back to the game that I love so much. I worked on putting it together for about a year and a half before Shoot For A Cure was launched in 2001, with the focus being on raising awareness about injuries like mine, while also raising funds for spinal cord research. The support from players throughout the league, plus all of the NHL alumni, was really incredible and helped us in a huge way in terms of awareness and raising funds. We raised over $1 million in the five years that I was with the campaign before moving on to another challenge. The campaign is still going strong, which is great to see as it's obviously an important issue and one that I certainly have close ties with.

What advice would you give to young people with a disability?

Never give up! If somebody tells you it can't be done, ignore them and do it. I like doing that...proving people wrong. The only other advice that I'd offer to young people with a disability is to do your research. Make sure you're comfortable with your surroundings and everything else that is a part of university life. Also, if you have any questions or need help with anything, there's always people around willing to help out. The worst thing they could say is no, which rarely happens.

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