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Florida cooking up sled hockey depth

01/21/2013, 9:00am EST
By Jeff Hawkins

Chris Douglas glides into the offensive zone, maneuvers around an imaginary defender and deftly beats the desperate move of a sprawling goalie. Over in the near corner, Douglas spots a loose puck. He collects it and coasts down the open sheet of ice. A move here, a deke there and his focus is clear: Score into an open net, pick up another loose puck and head back down the ice.
 
Hard work is not a figment of Douglas’ imagination.
 
Prior to March 2011, Douglas had no interest in ice hockey. He didn’t know the rules and didn’t watch the NHL. Sled hockey? He never heard of it. This is Florida, by the way. Not Alaska.
 
Now … “I watch hockey 24/7,” Douglas said.
 
The attitude change came quickly following a casual conversation with a nurse who suggested Douglas speak with local sled hockey coach Tom Reinarts.
 
Sled hockey? Douglas thought about it, but not for long. Douglas at first “totally forgot” about the conversation. But a few weeks later, he remembered and contacted Reinarts, coach of the Space Coast Ice Bandits. Reinarts invited him out for a skate.
 
“As soon as I got out there,” Douglas said. “I was hooked.”
 
The discovery didn’t come without complications. Competitive sled hockey leagues were scheduled to end the next month. Douglas sighed.
 
“No way can this be done,” Douglas recalls thinking.
 
For Douglas, the season was not done. His career was just getting started.
 
With inspiration from Reinarts and cooperation from a Kissimmee, Fla., ice rink, Douglas started skating … and skating … and skating …
 
Impressive as a rookie last season, the defenseman landed a spot on the 2012-13 national developmental team.
 
“[Douglas] has moved right along,” Reinarts said. “He has two things going for him. He has a lot of natural talent — he has a ton of speed — and his dedication. He is just grabbing the ice time.”
 
For his quick rise, the St. Cloud, Fla., resident applauds the efforts of Florida sled hockey pioneers Ron Robichaud and Reinarts. Not long ago, sled hockey opportunities were virtually non-existent. Then Reinarts formed a club team, the Space Coast Ice Bandits. Soon after, Reinarts met Robichaud, who was attempting to start a team in the Fort Myers, Fla. region. The duo started working camps and, as Robichaud’s squad developed, the two blended their teams into a feeder program for USA Hockey.
 
Entering this week’s 2013 Sled Cup, Florida will be represented by forwards Greg Shaw and Declan Farmer, a teenager, on the national team and Douglas on the developmental squad.
 
Despite the challenges of forming grassroots sled hockey in the Sunshine State, top club teams like Space Coast and the Tampa Bay Lighting are beginning to produce depth on the national level.
 
“Getting games is hard, but we are developing talent,” Reinarts said, adding, “sometimes we got creative with the logistics.”
 
Shaw, Farmer and Douglas are expected to play big roles at USA Hockey’s mid-season tournament, which will be staged this week at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N.C. Korea, Russia and the U.S. developmental team also will compete.
 
“All three of those players will do a bang-up job,” Reinarts said.
 
Robichaud feels good about the Florida connection’s future.
 
“Hopefully if we can get some funding,” he said, “we can be one of the teams to beat.”
 
Reinarts soon predicts the Florida assembly will land “two or three” players on the national team and “two or three” more on the developmental team.
“That’s a cool feeling,” Reinarts said.
 
Douglas would agree.
 
Three years ago, hockey meant nothing to him.
 
Now, if you want to find him, first check the local ice rink. He’s probably practicing.
 
“My goal is to make it to the Paralympics,” Douglas said. “I only have room to go up.”
 
If he does, Douglas certainly will applaud the efforts of Florida pioneers Robichaud and Reinarts.
 
“I think all the [Florida] programs are starting to catch fire and get sponsors,” Douglas said. “Whenever I see someone with a disability, I go up and talk to them and see if they want to play.”
 
That, to Douglas, is also a cool feeling.
 
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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