FRASER, Mich. -- Take one look at Ben Stewart, and it’s easy to see he stands out from the other players on the rink.
For one, his red-white-and-blue USA Hockey jersey is a bit different from the others. He sported a purchased souvenir version, since the team-issued one he might have worn draped well past his knees.
That’s because Ben is a seventh-grader and he’s skating among fully-grown men. In this game, he gives up about two feet and roughly 100 pounds to the other players, and that makes him even more noticeable.
Take a closer look, and you’ll see that Ben’s right arm is amputated below the elbow.
But that’s not why he stands out. This time, it’s how he fits in.
The 12-year-old from Dayton, who plays hockey “four or five times a week” with the Ohio Blue Jackets AAA travel team, got an opportunity to play with the USA National Standing Amputee A Division program at the USA Disabled Hockey Festival in suburban Detroit this April.
Despite skating against players from 20 to 56 years in age, Ben played regular shifts and even scored a couple of times throughout the four tournament games, drawing praise from his new teammates and opposing skaters alike.
“He’s really enjoying it,” said his father, Kevin. “He’s being used; it’s not just token time on the ice. The other team played him straight up, I appreciate that. He can play a very high level. He skates, he does everything that any 12-year-old kid does pretty well. I’m glad he could fit in this weekend and was able to contribute.”
Ben’s teams back home are able-bodied, and only once has he had a teammate with a similar physical situation, so being a part of the standing amputee tournament was a somewhat different experience for him.
“It was harder than I’m used to,” he said. “I’m used to kids my size, my age. [The adults] have longer strides so they’ll catch up faster. It just made it more difficult. Mostly I had better footwork. I’d accelerate around them, but their reach could probably save them a little bit.”
Beyond the weekend’s hockey games, Ben went back home to Dayton Friday night — a four-hour trip from metro Detroit — so he could fulfill a promise to his mother, Tammy, to run a 5-kilometer road race together on Saturday morning before returning to the rink. But it didn’t seem to slow him one bit once he got back on the ice.
Ben has been without a full right arm since birth due to Amniotic Band Syndrome, but that didn’t dissuade him from pursuing a variety of sports, including soccer and football in addition to running and hockey.
“From the moment he could stand, he figured it was easier to put skates on than to walk,” Kevin said. “He started rollerblading around the house and he’s been going ever since. He’s been around hockey his whole life.”
Although Ben occasionally used a prosthetic device at school, he doesn’t around the rink.
“There’s no special equipment [for me], and I hold the stick not normal, but not special,” he said. “I’m not the best player, but I’m not the worst player. On most of my roller hockey teams I play for, I’m probably one of the better players.”
Dr. David Crandell, President of the American Amputee Hockey Association, was impressed with Ben’s level of play, and hopes to make more young players facing a similar situation aware of USA Hockey’s Warrior/Standing Amp program.
“When they get together here, it’s really their only time to play like players,” Crandell said. “We do have players on the team playing with upper-limb amputations, we have players with lower-limb amputations, and one of the players here from Michigan plays on two prosthetic legs. If you watched the game, you probably couldn’t tell who it was.”
In a setting such as the USA Hockey Disabled Festival, the players stand out because of their ability, not because of their disability.
“What you should see is high–quality hockey. What you don’t see is the impairment,” Crandell said. “These are folks who are obviously playing hockey at a very high level, and despite the fact that they have a physical impairment they don’t let that stop them from competing.”
Ben, who hopes to take his game all the way to the NHL, appears to be up for any game at any time.
“This is the first time he’s got the opportunity to play with a team of amputees and it’s been phenomenal experience to play with guys at this level,” his father said. “I’ve been impressed. He seems to be a part of the team right now and I want him to continue to be a part of the team.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.