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Sled Hockey Growth Continues as NHL Classic Approaches

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

A few years ago, a group of NHL stars that included Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Claude Giroux, Logan Couture and Scott Hartnell took the ice as part of a video produced by Gatorade Canada. Seeing those guys on the ice together playing hockey isn’t unusual, but this time they just happened to be the worst players on the ice.

That’s right, even Sid the Kid. 

Impossible you say?

Not really.


So who was making these all-stars look so bad? Well, they were on the ice competing with players from a Canadian sled hockey team called the Cruisers. Seasoned sled hockey players make the sport look so easy, but the NHL boys soon found out that sled hockey is harder than it looks. Much harder.

There are shots of Crosby and MacKinnon wiping out and a clip with Grioux and Hartnell that pretty much summed up the experience. 

“They skated circles around us,” Giroux said.

And Hartnall added, laughing: “Literally circles.”  

Sled hockey, known as sledge hockey outside of the United States, is a version of ice hockey played primarily by people with lower-limb impairments that inhibit their mobility. As its name suggests, it is played on sleds that allow players to strap in for safety and have two blades underneath the seat. Players have two short sticks to allow for puck-handling and shooting on either side of the sled, but also to help propel themselves up and down the ice. The butt end of each stick has a spike that allows them to dig into the ice in a similar manner to how a to a cross-country skier uses poles to push forward.

Sled hockey is fast. Really fast.

“The athletes who play sled hockey tell me they love the feeling of being out on the ice,” J.J. O’Conner, chair of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, said in a promotional video for the sport. “You feel as though you’re flying. 

Sled hockey is physical.

There is bumping, hitting, slashing and even some scraps. Only head-on collisions and t-boning are not permitted at the adult level, and occasionally a sled will take a tumble. Collisions at high speeds can lead to players exchanging a few words from time to time, but there is such a feeling of mutual respect throughout the sport that most confrontations end with players exchanging stick taps or fist bumps.

“This is a full-contact sport, compared to other adaptive sports you can do,” Aaron Loy, a member of the United States National Developmental Team, told the Los Angeles Times. “And a lot of people like that. These kids maybe have grown up in a wheelchairs or other things, and they are kind of sheltered a little bit and now they get to hit someone, just like everyone else.”

Sled hockey is intense. 

“It’s fast,” Brenna Payne of the USA Hockey Foundation said in the video. “It’s Intense. And you can tell the people who play have just as much passion as stand-up hockey players do. It’s just a great sport for disabled athletes to be able to play.”

Sled hockey is pretty much like stand-up hockey with only a few rules modifications. Sticks are curved so players can lift shots. The equipment – other than the shorter spiked sticks and sleds – is very similar; goalies have a modified catching glove with a spike on the back side to help them move.

In addition to being remarkably fast, requiring tremendous upper-body strength to move at high speeds, sled hockey demands balance and impressive hand-eye skills to be able transition from skating to passing and shooting using essentially using the same tools.

Most important, however, are the other benefits sled hockey provides to its athletes.

For former hockey players who lost their lower-limb mobility later in life it’s an opportunity to do something they love that many thought might be lost forever. Those who played other sports and are in similar situations physically fall in love with the game as a means to compete and stay fit. For those born with limited mobility, sled hockey allows them to compete like able-bodied athletes, be part of a team and socialize with an empathetic and supportive peer group.  

Having that type of peer support group benefits all who participate.

“The biggest thing is that we’re all in it together – from the developmental to the youth to the older and the elite,” said Monica Quimby, a gold medalist for the U.S. women’s team at the Para Ice Hockey Cup, said in the video.

Added Ralph DeQuebec, a wounded veteran who is on the U.S. Men’s National Team: “You feel normal again when you are out there going 100 miles per hour.”

Sled hockey was invented in the 1960s in a rehabilitation center in Stockholm, Sweden, and it has been played in the Winter Paralympics since 1994. Competitive sled hockey began in the early 1970s in Europe, with Great Britain and Canada establishing the first national teams in the ‘80s.

The first U.S. team was formed in 1990, with enough countries having teams by 1994 for sled hockey to become a Paralympic sport. Sled hockey now is sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee as Para Ice Hockey. USA Hockey currently supports a men’s national team and developmental teams for men and women. Women’s sled hockey could be added to the Paralympics by 2022, and the U.S. Men’s National Team has captured four Paralympic gold medals.

The popularity of the sport on the international stage has contributed to rapid growth in participation in the United States. Since 2012, overall participation in disabled hockey has grown by 70 percent in the U.S., with sled hockey participation increasing by 114 percent.

Sled hockey is marketed very similarly to stand-up hockey, with “Try It” or “Learn to Play” clinics being held all over the country. Many of these programs are conducted in affiliation with NHL teams, which also sponsor sled hockey clubs and teams around North America. There are opportunities for kids and adults to play sled hockey from the basic instructional clinics through youth programs to adult leagues and the national-team program.

Athletes of any skill, ability and experience level are encouraged to participate and are supported by paid coaches, volunteers and high-level players as they attempt to learn the sport. Stand-up coaches and “pushers” are on hand to help teach the basics and assist with movement around the ice surface, while experienced players can demonstrate skating, skills and drills. Even able-bodied players are welcome to participate if they want to join a friend or sibling on the ice.

The Anaheim Ducks Foundation, which sponsors the San Diego Ducks sled hockey program in the hometown of the Ducks’ AHL affiliate team, is starting a program in Irvine, Calif. More than 60 potential sled hockey players turned out their “Try It” event. One of four rinks at the Ducks’ new training facility in Irvine will be designed for sled hockey, with a flat-surface entry in and out of the bench areas and clear bench boards so players can view the action when they are not in the game.

Every year, NHL-affiliated sled hockey teams are invited to participate in the NHL Sled Classic. The most recent event, hosted by the Chicago Blackhawks in February, drew 30 teams and 362 skaters from 20 clubs nationwide. The initial Sled Classic was hosted by the Colorado Avalanche in 2010 and featured just four teams. This season’s 2019-20 event will take place Nov. 21-24 in St. Louis, with the Stanley Cup-champion Blues hosting.

Billy Zinkhan, a former youth hockey official and coach who had a brief professional career, is a coach for the Bennett Blazers’ sled hockey program in Maryland. The Blazers are part of the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Physically Challenged Sports Program, offering youth and adult teams that participate in the Delaware Valley Sled Hockey League and the Northeast Sled Hockey League, respectively.

Zinkhan’s family also runs the Baltimore Saints special hockey program, which offers ice hockey opportunities for children and adults who have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have a developmental disability such as autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. When it comes to coaching sled hockey, Zinkhan teaches the same game of hockey he has always known and gets some help from U.S. Men’s National Team player Noah Grove.

Grove, a native of Frederick, Md., who attends Towson University, is one of the youngest players on the National Team, having turned 20 in May. He won a Paralympic gold medal in 2018 and had a leg amputated when he was 5 after being diagnosed with bone cancer. His USA Hockey bio says that he was playing soccer on a prosthetic leg by age 8 and initially “had doubts about sled hockey, but once he tried it, he instantly fell in love.” He skated for two years with the U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team before making the National Team in 2016 as a 16 year old and also competes on the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team.

“You’re still basically coaching the same game of hockey,” Zinkhan said. “The big challenge is trying to teach the players how to skate and shoot because I’m standing up using a full-sized stick. I’m not on a sled and don’t really know how they should use the sticks to push across the ice or the best stroke for them to use, and I can’t really show them how to shoot. That’s where the guys like Noah really help. We don’t always have him or another person like him at our practices, but then it’s no different than any other youth practice where you use some of the better players to help demonstrate drills or a skill.”

Zinkhan’s teams practice once a week on Saturdays, and most programs seem to offer one or two on-ice sessions per week. The Bennett youth program includes players between the ages of 6 and 16, with some of the more experienced players also competing for the adult team. Like Grove, who plays multiple sports, many of Zinkhan’s players are involved in more than just hockey.

“You should see what these kids that I coach do,” he said. “They show up Saturday at the Institute at like 7 a.m. for swimming, track, softball or lacrosse or something like that then come to the ice rink for practice. After that it’s back to the Institute for basketball. We have a lot of players playing who are 10 to 15 years old and really understand hockey along with kids who have never played or been on a sled but have played soccer or basketball so they kind of understand some stuff. Then we have others who are adults and have never played organized sports and really don’t know anything. You have to be able and willing to work with everybody to make sure they can do what they want to do and that they have a positive experience.”

Bennett’s adult team plays in the Northeast Sled Hockey League, one of the largest leagues in the country featuring 15 teams, three divisions and two levels of plays. Based in Simsbury, Conn., the NESHL has teams located from Maine west into Ohio and south all the way to Maryland.

The NESHL is one of many similar leagues that can be found all over North America, a further tribute to sled hockey’s growth. Its mission is focused on helping the players develop as people and athletes on and off the ice.

As stated on the NESHL website, the league strives "to provide an environment where individuals, with and without disabilities, can develop as athletes, leaders and community members through a competitive sled hockey league that emphasizes commitment, discipline, teamwork, and sportsmanship. 

League objectives include developing players to compete at the national-team and international level, to increase awareness about the sport, to assist with individuals’ awareness and return to work/life, to build life skills and to provide “positive shared experiences” among family and friends.

Each division of the NESHL has three or more regular-season weekends of league play that may include as many as five or six games, depending on how many teams participate. Regular-season games may start as early as September and run through February, with playoffs scheduled for March.

League participants range in age from 15 to 60 and come from varied ethnic backgrounds. About 22 percen of the athletes are disabled veterans, with participants and volunteers coming from nine different states. The league has sent many athletes on to play on U.S. National and Development teams and participate in international events.

A quick glance at the U.S. National and Development team rosters shows that the sport is producing international-level players from Alaska to Florida. Sled hockey truly has become a nationally recognized sport that continues to grow in popularity all over the continent. The participation of so many wounded veterans, along with their heart-wrenching and heartwarming stories, have helped make sled hockey one of the most popular Paralympic sports.

“Coaching sled hockey for me is really about giving back to the game I love,” Zinkhan said. “Just being able to teach them and seeing these kids learn the game of hockey and to watch those who came to us not knowing anything keep coming back and getting a little bit better every time makes it really enjoyable and rewarding.

 

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