PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. National Sled Hockey Team captain Josh Sweeney cuts the ice leaving precise lines behind him, while teammate Luke McDermott moves the puck side-to-side in a flash as he approaches the net.
Both helped Team USA claim gold last season at the 2015 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship, but Sunday night was not about them. Instead, the focus was on those who are excited simply for the opportunity to get out on the ice.
On Aug. 23, Sweeney and McDermott hosted a free introductory sled hockey clinic at the Winterhawks Skating Center in Portland, Ore., to give participants with physical disabilities a chance to try the sport.
The clinic was largely about getting individuals out onto the ice and accustomed to moving around on the slippery surface. The sensation brought broad smiles and whoops of joy, as Sweeney and McDermott weaved through the crowd offering tips on how to move the sled or shoot the puck.
Among the almost 40 participants were Bruce and Kate Pritchard, two people who have built a hockey family. Bruce grew up on Vancouver Island and played semi-pro hockey with the Victoria Cougars in the mid-1980s. He now coaches a Bantam AA team in the Junior Winterhawks league.
The Pritchards’ son, Chris, is a goalie with the Eugene Generals of the Northern Pacific Hockey League. At the clinic, their daughter Kate got a chance to take the ice — a prospect that drew a thumbs up and a smile from the shy 16-year-old.
“We are a hockey family, so she has been at the rink since she's had a binky in her mouth,” Kate said. “She's been wanting to play, so we jumped at this chance.”
She wasn't the only one excited for Sunday’s free clinic, as the line stretched out the door with many athletes making the transition from wheelchairs to sleds.
“It provides a team atmosphere and gets people with disabilities out there with other people,” Bruce said. “This is a way for her to get out on the ice with a stick in her hand.”
Sled hockey was developed in Sweden in the 1960s as a way to allow those with physical disabilities to pursue their love of hockey. Players propel themselves along the ice using a modified hockey stick. It’s basically cut in half, with an ice pick on one end to scoot along the surface and the blade at the other end to control the puck.
“I can't imagine the upper-body requirements it takes,” said Stephen Boesch, a coach in the Winterhawks high school league, who was on hand to volunteer at the event. “This definitely shows that there is an interest in sled hockey here.”
The sport has taken root in the East Coast and Midwest, but has been slower to reach the West, although teams have formed in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Sweeney, who moved to Portland last year, is a big part of that movement to introduce the sport to new skaters.
An alternate captain on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, Sweeney scored the winning goal against Russia in the gold-medal game of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. A recipient of a Purple Heart while serving in the Marines, Sweeney went on to become the winner of the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2014 ESPYS.
“He has been a phenomenal spokesman for the sport,” said Kellie Hays, a disabled hockey representative for USA Hockey. “He's been a spark, and we're expecting really big things.”
Sweeney’s hopes of forming teams in the Northwest may soon become reality thanks to his growing relationships with the Portland Winterhawks, the NHLPA, and the support of USA Hockey National Sled Team sponsor, Labatt Blue, and their ‘Pass It Forward’ initiative, which has identified Sweeney’s ambitions as one of ten recipient programs to receive a portion of the $250k they are donating to expand sled hockey’s growth.
The attempt to bring sled hockey to the West Coast is already gaining attention – including that of Kaleb Kallappa, a U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials participant, who discovered the sport earlier this summer in Seattle and was in attendance at the clinic.
“I always like trying new sports, but the biggest thing is to have fun and listen to your coaches,” Kallappa said.
The college student competed at the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Trials in 2012, just missing the cut in the 800- and 1,500-meter events. He’s also an active basketball player, which has helped him make the transition to the ice.
“The sports are really similar in the way you keep the floor spread and the way you move the puck,” Kallappa said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.