Payeur hopes accident can serve as warning to keep people from drinking and driving

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The road conditions were less than perfect, but Joey Payeur took that into account as he began the drive to Thunder Bay on the afternoon of December 29, 2022. He was cautious and careful, and intent on delivering his passenger to their destination.

They never made it to Thunder Bay.

By the end of the day, Payeur, a fixture of the local hockey scene, was hospitalized following a serious collision with an oncoming drunk driver, and while he continues on his road to recovery, he wants the public to really understand the dangers of driving under the influence.

“On December 29, I was contacted by a friend who needed a ride to Thunder Bay,” Payeur recalled.

“I offered to help them out. We headed out east about roughly 4:00 that afternoon. There was a little bit of freezing drizzle, nothing terrible, and driving under the speed limit made it perfectly safe to be out there. We could see a long way in the distance, and a bend in the road. There was another car coming around that bend in the opposite direction.”

Payeur said he thought nothing of the other vehicle, but before they had the chance to pass it by, it was suddenly in their lane, directly in front of them. With no time left to do anything to get out of the way of the oncoming vehicle, they collided.

Payeur remembers yelling, and his passenger yelling, and the airbags going off, and being thankful he had put on his seatbelt. But once the collision was over and he had a chance to take stock of himself, he knew he was in trouble.

“As I started to gather my breath after a couple of minutes, I realized what had happened. My driver side window had caved in. My windshield on my side was almost completely destroyed. I came to the realization I couldn’t move my legs. At first that frightened me because I didn’t know if it was paralysis or what.”

Payeur eventually discovered that his legs had been pinned between his seat and the front dash of his vehicle with no way to remove himself. His passenger, injured but free, was able to get out of the vehicle, check the other driver, and call for emergency services. The nearest ambulance, Payeur said, was more than an hour away, and so he was stuck in his vehicle until they could get there, maybe longer.

“I know they did their best to get out there as soon as possible,” he said.

“Fire and Rescue and the police arrived about 20 minutes after the accident. I was trapped in there for a good solid hour. While I was in there I thought I could smell gas leaking from my truck, so that got me pretty scared because I didn’t know if it was going to be an explosion or something. I had a wonderful police officer, Constable Jeremy Oster, he kept me calm, kept me going throughout the whole time being in there. He kept reassuring me I was going to be ok.”

Emergency services were finally able to pry apart the remains of Payeur’s truck to extricate him from the wreckage, and deliver him to hospital. His pelvis had been broken in the crash, and caused the dislocation of his right hip and leg. The doctors at La Verendrye Hospital were able to reset the leg and keep him stable overnight, and he was sent to Thunder Bay the next day. Unfortunately, the damage done was significant enough that he was soon under the knife once more.

“They were planning to do a test to test the durability of my hip and see if it would remain in place,” Payeur said.

“They never got to do that test. The third night I was there, I was sitting up in my bed and maneuvered it a little bit to much and ended up re-dislocating it myself. It was pretty much the worst three hours of my life. They had to take me down to x-ray my hip to make sure that’s what it was, brought me back to my room then had to transport me back down again to the OR to get the hip put back in place. They decided to hold off on doing the full surgery on the pelvis until the next morning because it was a complicated procedure.”

Eventually, and sooner than he had expected, Payeur was released back home, where he continued to follow his recovery plan in order to regain his mobility and independence. Part of that process was returning to the rink as an announcer for local hockey, something Payeur said he had always dreamed of doing since the days of watching Hockey Night in Canada as a child. Having become such a fixture in the local hockey scene over the years, he reflected on a gesture from the Fort Frances Muskie Girls hockey team that left him emotional and aware of just how beloved he is to the sport in Fort Frances.

“I was doing my first game again eight days after my surgery,” Payeur said.

“It just felt right to be back out there, and it was a big boost to my spirits to be back. After the Muskie Girls game on January 11, 2023, I was told by their trainer, Constable Ann McEwen, I thought it was her daughter, who played on the team, I thought she wanted to take a photo with me, but when I got down there, the whole team was waiting for me. They all wanted me to be part of the photo. That absolutely moved me to such gratitude. It was an immeasurable lift to my spirits. This year’s Muskie Girls Hockey team will always be very special to me.”

Payeur has a lot of recovery left ahead of him. He remains on crutches, and the Northwest Catholic District School Board has provided him with a wheelchair to use while he is teaching at St. Mary School. He is very thankful to all of the emergency first responders, doctors, nurses and others who have helped him since the accident. He is aiming to be back on his feet as soon as possible, and hopes to be running again come the fall.

But more than anything, Payeur wants his experience to serve as a reminder and a warning to everyone that he believes there is no safe amount of alcohol have in your system when you get behind the wheel, and that no one should be hurt or killed in such a way.

“It frustrates me, it upsets me, that in 2023 people still think it’s OK to drink and then get behind the wheel of a vehicle,” Payeur said.

“I myself in my younger days was guilty of the same action. Thank God I never injured myself or anyone else because of my poor decisions. I never faced legal consequences because of my decisions. But I did do it, and I cannot imagine how I would have felt if I had caused bodily harm to somebody else because of my poor decisions. Now that I’m older, thankfully wiser, that’s not something I can even begin to consider doing. There’s no such thing, to me, as ‘I’ve only had a couple, it’s ok.’ There’s no such thing as too little to drink.”

Joey Payeur, elementary school teacher and Muskie hockey announcer, survived a collision with a drunk driver after Christmas. Although he has a long road of recovery still ahead, he’s been pushing hard to get back to his normal life. He got up the strength to announce a Muskie game just eight days after his surgery, and the team was so overjoyed to see him, they asked him to pose for a photo. – Submitted photo

Payeur said that while it’s tempting to think someone is OK to drive after even a few drinks, there are just too many other, safer alternatives out there these days to take advantage of to keep yourself off the road after drinking.

“I can’t emphasize enough that if you want to go out and enjoy yourself and alcohol is involved, I’m not saying that’s bad; I’m saying be smart,” he said.

“Make a plan, have a friend or designated driver, call a taxi, sleep over at the house party, whatever you need to do to keep yourself from climbing behind a steering wheel. Because what happened to me can happen to anybody. It’s not like it’s an unavoidable situation. This is something that every single person has the choice: to get behind the wheel or not get behind the wheel. I was put in a situation where I may have never seen my wife again, my mother, my brother, my grandchildren, my nephews, my friends and co-workers. I may never have seen any of them again. No one deserves to be put in that situation. No one deserves to have a loved one taken away from them in that way.”