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Hockey a path to recovery

07/23/2008, 10:45am EDT
By Cameron Eickmeyer

When Sergeant Andrew Hill suffered a combat injury in Afghanistan that shattered his right ankle, fractured vertebrae in his back and neck and caused a severe thumb injury, the physical cost was a loss of 70 percent mobility in his foot and the multiple surgeries to repair the damage.
 
The mental cost was the loss of the ability to participate in some of the activities he loved. The Minnesota native said he had to deal with the possibility that he wouldn’t “touch the ice again” to play the sport he loves.
 
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to play hockey again,” Hill said.
 
When the recently created USA Wounded Warriors Ice Hockey program began in Washington, D.C., to service injured soldiers and get them back on the ice, Hill jumped at the opportunity.
 
“Hockey is in my blood and I didn’t want to stop,” he said.
 
Hill now serves on the program’s Board of Directors and helps with recruitment. He plays for the team, and said the USA Warriors enabled him to work past the injury physically and mentally.
 
“Most of us have been gaining the ability to do something again or to do it with a different part of our body,” Hill said. “It’s a return to what you once were and what you thought you’d never be able to do it again.”

The important thing to Hill is that the USA Warriors treat the soldiers as hockey players first and gives them an outlet to forget about their injuries for a little while. One coach, Steve Monahan, made a specific impression on Hill.
 
“He doesn’t look at soldiers as 'injuries.' He just gives us drills and tells us to do it,” Hill said.
 
Mike Hickey, who serves as a vice president with the USA Warriors, said the overall goal of the program is to help the soldiers through rehabilitation.
 
“To provide these guys with a form of rehabilitation, which connects directly to playing ice hockey and being involved in ice hockey, will help them get on with their lives with as much normalcy as possible,” Hickey said.
 
Joe Bowser, who plays standing amputee hockey, said the rehabilitation emphasis is crucial to helping him recover from his injury.
 
“It helps me by transferring my weight from my good leg to my amputated one without thinking about it,” he said. When you first lose your leg it is very difficult to trust an object that isn't yours. So you often compensate by putting most of your weight on the strong side.
 
“Skating also helps strengthen your core because of the balancing you have to do in order to skate,” he added.
 
The team is in its first year, and has set its goals first on establishing a base of players in Washington, D.C., and growing awareness about the team through local leagues and promotions. Hickey said he hopes to enter a team in the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Adult Pond Hockey Championships.
 
The team serves standing amputee players as well as sled hockey players. The rehabilitation is handled through team practices, which feature a wide range of ability levels and are broken up by sled and standing amputee drills.
 
The coaches are able to work individually with players, Hickey said, which helps the athletes with their specific disabilities. Hickey and Hill also said the players already have formed a bond that opens the door for them to teach each other how to tackle obstacles.
 
“We’re working with each other and learning from each other as we go,” Hill said.
 
Dave Lucia, also a board member and a coach, said he sees the team becoming a resource for the players to discuss issues outside of hockey.
 
“It will be a forum for them to get together to discuss among themselves, almost like a support group, and they can talk about things they are going through,” he said.
 
Hill said the soldiers have so many experiences in common that the locker room is a place where there are “no barriers,” and players can help each other through a wide variety of issues.
 
“It makes us more functional for life,” he said of the USA Warriors program.
 
Hickey said the local area hospitals know about the program and have lent some support. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center helped one sled player by designing a custom sled sleeve to help ease irritation to an amputation.
 
“They developed that strictly for this program,” Hickey said.
 
There is also a local adult team made up of doctors who did many of the procedures on the soldiers who make up the USA Warriors roster, Hickey said.
 
The program’s goal locally is to enroll the standing amputee players in an adult league at The Gardens Ice House, Hickey said.
 
The long term goal is to keep the players on the ice and in the game after they complete their recovery and head home.
 
“Our end goal is to rehabilitate these guys, get them back into the sport of hockey and tracking these guys so when they go home we can find them an adult league they can play in or finding them a sled program they can play in,” Hickey said. “When they leave here they aren’t leaving the sport, they are adding to the sport wherever they end up.”
 
The USA Warriors aren’t planning expansion to other areas of the country, Hickey said, and will stay close to the injured soldiers at the military hospitals. New players will come and go, but the program aims to help the soldiers from the recovery process all the way to their own adult league wherever that may be.
 
“Kids who have these types of injuries, it just changes their entire life and they really don’t know what’s in store for them in the future,” Lucia said. “Now they have a glimmer of hope and can say ‘I still can do these things that I love, it’s just going to be a little different.’”

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