Sled Hockey: First Attempt

Prior to this past Saturday, I had never tried an adaptive sport before. Ever. But I know they exist. There’s rock climbing, rugby, tennis, cycling, etc. Basically, any sport that exists has an adaptive counterpart. These counterparts often receive far less attention than their able-bodied versions, even though both are ridiculously hard to play well. Don’t believe me? See this video of professional hockey players playing sled hockey.

I could ramble about the lack of coverage of adaptive sports (unless you’re watching the X Games, which does a surprisingly good job of incorporating adaptive events into their main televised schedule), but this is going to be a more personal post instead, because I tried an adaptive sport and want to gush about it.

First, why did it take so freaking long to try an adaptive sport? Three reasons:

  1. Free time: As in, I didn’t have much of it. My physical therapy schedule takes up about 14 hours of my life at school per week, and about 20 when I’m home. It’s hard to find time to travel to a place that does anything adaptive.
  2. My inner ableist thoughts: When you grow up able-bodied and then become disabled, your mind has already been tainted by a society that values adaptive sports less than their abled counterparts. The hospital I stayed at for inpatient never suggested adaptive sports, and so I didn’t think they were a worthwhile option, and paid little attention to adaptive sports. It wasn’t until I watched videos of adaptive sports that I realized how awesome they look.
  3. I needed an excuse: If I tried an adaptive sport, it would have to be in a facility close to home, and I would have to be okay with asking my mother to drive me (because I don’t have a driver’s license/wheelchair-driver-friendly vehicle).

Then my gym, Push to Walk, hosted their annual summer boot camp. This camp features events such as a group exercise day, a trivia night, and a talk from a motivational speaker.

This year, they had sled hockey. It was taking place literally an hour and a half after I finished my Saturday workout, and in a facility that was pretty much on the way home.

It looked like I was going to try sled hockey.

So, what is sled hockey? Well, it starts with a sled that you sit in. There are two blades underneath your seat (the width between these blades varies depending on your skill/comfort level, or if you’re the goalie). Once you’re in the seat, your legs are straight out in front of you, with a strap underneath your ankles/lower legs to keep them from touching the ice. You also are strapped into the seat, so that when you fall down (whether intentionally or accidentally), you’re still in your sled, and not sprawled out on the ice. You also have two small hockey sticks that double as your means of mobility. Each stick has picks at the bottom that are driven into the ice to propel you in most directions. You also have to wear a lot of safety equipment, because I cannot stress how similar hockey and sled hockey are. Players move quickly, there’s a lot of contact, and I’m pretty sure some of these players have lost teeth at some point (which is just my speculation, because I never asked any of the players I met about this).

As my mother drove me and my sister (I had asked her to take pictures of my inevitable hockey ineptitude) to the rink, I took a, “What on earth was I thinking?” selfie.

I reminded myself that I did mostly long distance running in high school, in no small part due to my lack of hand-eye coordination and poor reflexes. Hockey is fast, requires equipment that you have to pay attention to, and, yeah, good reflexes are kind of a necessity.

But I wasn’t completely terrified. It was my first time in a hockey sled. I wouldn’t be good enough to go too fast and careen into a wall. Falling over was inevitable, but I’d fallen on the ice plenty of times before (although these were all while I was able-bodied).

Once we arrived at the indoor hockey rink, we went inside and saw that the NJ Freeze, a sled hockey team, was doing a demo game.

Holy crap, they played rough. I mean, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the speed at which they moved, and the rate at which they changed direction was mindblowing. They collided with each other and with the walls, and the clangs that accompanied each hit made me feel slightly queasy. Yes, yes, I knew that none of them were going to hit a newbie like me with such force, but still.

Push to Walk helped to run the event, which meant that they were going to have one of their trainers on the ice once the demo game ended and the people who wanted to try a sled got to do so. The trainer, Chris, happens to be the trainer that I primarily work with, so I felt no qualms at all about making the, “What on earth was I thinking?” face at him every time I heard a clang on the ice.

“Want to sit in the sled and get a feel for it?” he asked.

I stared at the sled. Boy, that looked close to the ground. That meant I’d be close to the ice. Like, super close. Thank goodness I packed a hoodie. Oh my, I was actually going to do this.

“Suuuuuure.”

Gosh, that syllable was dripping with enthusiasm.

Me and Chris
My “what on earth was I thinking?” face, accompanied with Chris’ “I’m definitely about to start cackling” face. This is a pretty accurate representation of the pre-sled-hockey-attempt situation.

The game ended and it was time to get on the ice. I had to borrow one of the hockey players’ helmets, because my size wasn’t available. Chris helped me get my elbow pads on, gave me two hockey sticks with picks in them and gloves, and strapped me into the sled.

IMG_0785
Chris is strapping me into the sled so that I don’t fall out. Ah, it’s happening!
Full Gear
Ready to get on the ice!

Then Chris brought me onto the ice, where all the NJ Freeze players were skating around.

IMG_0786
This answers my, “So how do I actually get onto the ice?” question.
On the Ice
On the ice! Ice is slippery. I’m staring at the sticks and wondering, “So…how do these work?”

I may have yelped once he pulled me onto the ice. But then a woman (yes! There’s a woman on the NJ Freeze!) skated over and started instructing me on how to propel myself forward efficiently.

First Push
Turns out that if you don’t push both sides with equal force, you will not go straight. Oops.

When I felt myself start to drift to the side, I tried to put a stick down and ended up turning left and slightly hitting her sled. I quickly apologized (hey! I do have a reflex!), and she replied with something to the effect of, “Don’t say sorry in hockey. I’ve been hit way harder than that.”

Getting the Hang of It
Attempting not to veer the wrong way or capsize.

I bumped into her a few more times before I finally got the hang of a very basic level of slow steering.

IMG_0783
Moving!

I thanked her for the lesson and started to wander around the rink.

I asked one of the other players how to transition from propelling with the hockey sticks to actually using them to hit a puck. I have some video from it.

The players were super nice and helpful. After the lesson, I wandered around the ice with a puck (which, after watching my sister’s video, looks a bit like I’m playing with a puck because I have no friends).

Alas. But can you imagine that the thing you use to hit the puck is also the thing you need to steer and move? One of the players told me (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a lefty or righty, because you have to rely on both sticks to steer and shoot.

My mind flashed back to elementary school, when I learned how to play tennis. My forehand with my right hand was great, but my backhand, which involved grabbing the racket with both hands and swinging on my left side, had a 5% success rate. So when one of the hockey players passed me the puck on my left side, I missed. Minding both sides is hard.

About forty-five minutes into learning things and wandering around the ice (I even took a few shots on goal at one point), I started to feel slightly relaxed. This was actually kind of nice. I had gotten the hang of propelling forward and avoiding a collision with the wall.

Then Chris skated out with a hockey stick (the type used by able-bodied players) and I let out an, “Oh no.” Chris is used to hearing things of that nature from me, so I don’t think he was offended.

“Want to pass the puck around?”

“Sure!”

Within five minutes, I had fallen over on my side on the ice. Turns out that when you reach for a puck on your left side and try to hit it with some level of force, gravity takes over. Chris came over and helped me back up. This happened again less than a minute later. Sigh. I had been doing so well. Sadly, I do not have any photo evidence of my passing attempts with falls (my sister had taken quite a few pictures by this point and had decided that was plenty).

I was on the ice for about an hour, and I have to say, it was unexpectedly a lot of fun. The Freeze players were so friendly and helpful. I wish someone at one of the hospitals I went to had mentioned that this was an option. Granted, I was in a lot worse shape back then. I had poor grip strength, terrible balance, and a much weaker upper body.

That said, I’m stronger now, and I’m about to move to New England, a place that takes its hockey very seriously. I’ve checked, and there is indeed a sled hockey opportunity around the Boston area. Provided I can actually get to a hockey rink, I think I found a sport that I want to get better at.

Thanks, Push to Walk and the NJ Freeze Sled Hockey team!

IMG_0784

In retrospect, regardless of my ability level when I was first hospitalized, I would have liked to try an adaptive sport sooner. If you have a physical disability and have the time, I highly recommend checking out any adaptive sports in your area. They’re a great way to get/stay in shape, to socialize with others who have disabilities, and to do things that usually get left out of a traditional physical therapy regiment. For instance, I’ve been encouraged to check out Brooklyn Boulders’ adaptive climbing, which I may do in the future.

By the way, I’m shamelessly plugging my gym here, but Push to Walk is an amazing non-profit that provides workouts for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological issues. If you’re ever feeling generous, you should totally donate to them.

Push to Walk’s Facebook (for more sled hockey pictures)

Push to Walk’s Instagram

The Northeast Sled Hockey League

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