I’ve wanted to write something about my sled hockey experiences but I never settled on a format. So I thought I’d take you through a recent tournament weekend.

But First, a Little Bit About Sled Hockey

Sled Hockey (aka Adaptive Hockey or Sledge Hockey for you Canucks) is an adaptive sport that was developed by some disabled guys in Sweden in the 1960’s. It’s the fastest growing adaptive sport, probably because it’s just like its non-adaptive counterpart in terms of game play, speed, and physicality. The ice rink, goals, pucks, and protective equipment are the same as regular hockey. The player sits strapped in a sled that has skate blades, and holds two short sticks that have sharp points on one end to propel the sled and a blade at the other end to handle the puck and shoot. Here’s a quick highlight reel from the last Paralympics to give you a visual. 

How Did I Get Here?

I started playing about 6 years ago. A random guy (now my teammate) came up to me in church one Sunday and asked if I wanted to try it out. He played for a team in South Bend, IN, and also for the Blackhawks in Chicago. I told him it sounded great, and ended up playing a year in South Bend. The whole time he kept asking me to come to a Chicago Blackhawks practice. I kept putting it off because it was a longer drive and the practices were at night. But I am a big Blackhawks fan, so I relented, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Chicago has two teams, Chicago A and Chicago B. In the two national tournaments, the teams are grouped by Tier, from 1 being the highest to 5 being the lowest. If any club team has a player on the US National Team, then that club team is automatically placed in Tier 1. Chicago A plays in Tier 1, and Chicago B plays in Tier 5. Which means that when Chicago A wins a national tournament, they are the best club team in the USA. That has happened a few times since I’ve been there. In addition to the national tournaments, clubs organize themselves into leagues with 4 or 5 other teams and travel to each others rinks for 3 or 4 weekend tournaments each season. Our Chicago teams are in two separate leagues.

We are very fortunate in Chicago to have some major sponsorships, so the team can afford to pay for plane tickets and hotel rooms when we travel. Bigger programs have that kind of budget, but most smaller programs (including my old team in South Bend) didn’t have that kind of budget, so tournaments were within driving distance and you paid your own way if you needed a hotel room.

The Road to San Antonio

I play for Chicago B, mostly because Chicago A is usually stacked with National Team members and veteran players who keep coming back. I have played up a handful of times. This year some people didn’t return after the year long COVID break so there is some room for some of us to play up for a few tournaments. For the first tournament of the year, in San Antonio, it was my turn.

Our two National Team guys, Travis Dodson and Kevin McKee, were playing this weekend. Supposedly National Team players on the other teams were taking the time off from club tournaments to train for the upcoming Paralympics, but at the last minute they all decided to play. Which made for an interesting weekend. Normally we play against San Antonio, St. Louis, Nashville, and Colorado, but this year Nashville dropped out due to a problem with funding.

Diary of a Hockey Player

Here’s the rundown of my weekend.

Friday, 3:40am. After a night of restless sleep due to nerves, I get up, get dressed, and head out the door toward Chicago. I had everything packed the night before into one big rolling duffel bag, which sits in the back seat of my car.

Friday, 5:30am. I arrive at the not so aptly named “economy” lot at O’Hare Airport and park my car. I hook the duffel behind my wheelchair and drag the 50 pound beast to the airport shuttle.

Friday, 6:15am. I meet some of my other teammates at the terminal and check in. After that it’s time for fun with the TSA. I can’t stand up in the Rape Scanners so I have to get hand searched. Lucky me, this time the guy is in training and has his supervisor watching. It is the most thoroughly violated I have been at an airport and it took forever. One of my teammates, who could walk, just watched the whole thing with a “WTF?” look on his face.

Friday, 7:50am. Finally we’re on the plane and in the air. I take a nap and sleep through the beverage and snack service.

Friday, 10:58am. We land in San Antonio. Someone from the San Antonio team arrives with a trailer and takes our hockey bags to the rink. We get three rental cars (two pickup trucks and a Tahoe, this is Texas), get some pizza, and head to the rink for our first game.

Friday, 3:30pm. We play our first game against the San Antonio Rampage. This is an all-veteran team. It features Rico Roman (whom you might have seen on TV commercials) and Jen Lee, the US National back-up goalie who it could be argued is the best sled goalie in the world. Or at least the second best. This team is pretty big and likes to hit. We dominate possession but lose 3-2 due to the aforementioned insanely talented goalie. I play about a third of the game, and I’m noticing this time I’m faster than about half the other team. This is a big improvement from last time I played at this level. Here’s a badly formatted video from this game. I’m the short one wearing #2 in red.

Friday, 6:30pm. After a shower at the hotel, we have a team dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Next we grab some alcohol at the local grocery store, and then hang out in the hotel meeting room drinking. I mention that I’ve taken my “nighttime meds” (blood pressure, natural muscle relaxer, ibuprofen, magnesium). Someone brought a Bluetooth speaker that looks like a lava lamp. I’m fascinated, and the possible link between this and my meds becomes a running joke the rest of the weekend.

Saturday, 7:00am. We have two games today. The free hotel breakfast is adequate. We load into the pickups and head down the street to the rink.

Saturday, 8:30am. Our second game is against the St. Louis Blues. They have the highly talented Team USA captain Josh Pauls, and usually have the #1 goalie Steve Cash, but luckily Cash decided not to play. Being a forward, it’s my job to “cover” defenseman Pauls. The best I could do is kind of skate with him, but he has zero problem getting around me. We’re up 4-1 at one point, but they employ the “give the puck to Pauls” strategy. He skates through all of us and scores several times. In this game, I score my first A Team goal. Travis gave me a sweet pass from behind the net and I buried a one-timer from close in, just like we’ve practices for the past year. We end up winning 8-7 in a shootout. Luckily the game is won before my turn to shoot and possibly make a fool of myself. In the locker room, our coach gives me the game puck.

The game puck

Saturday, 10:20am. We stop to eat some subs, then have a few hours to shower and nap.

Saturday, 5:00pm. Time for our third game vs. the Colorado Avalanche. I have a long history of hating this team. When I was in South Bend, we played their kids team. They also have 3 adult teams, and over the years I’ve played one or two of those. In every instance, the were dominant and tended to run up the score like assholes. The team tonight has mostly players from the US National Development team. So they are fast and skilled. In this game I feel way over my head. It’s hard for me to keep up, though I do get in a few hits. Despite an early 2-0 lead, we get worn out halfway through the game, give up 6 straight goals, and lose 8-4. It would have ended at 8-3 but US Kevin fired a shot from our zone at the end and it went in less than one second before the buzzer.

Saturday, 7:00pm. We have dinner at a very sketchy BBQ place called Rudy’s. It’s attached to a gas station. But being BBQ fan and an Indiana resident I’m keeping an open mind. The brisket is out of this world, and the sides were pretty good too. Would recommend.

Saturday, 9:00pm. Another shower and we meet in the hotel lobby for more alcohol. I share a few glasses of pino with one of my teammates. Sadly the mesmerizing speaker was left in someone’s room. I am sad.

Sunday, 8:00am. Another adequate hotel breakfast, then off to the rink.

Sunday, 9:30am. Our fourth game, against St. Louis again because of Nashville dropping out. I’m definitely tired and sore and I feel like I’ve lost a step.  But Travis and  US Kevin keep putting them away like they did all weekend. Another one of my teammates, who’s had a ton of chances all weekend but no goals, finally gets one that bounces off his chest. A goal’s a goal. We win 9-2.

Sunday, 12:30pm. My teammate and I celebrate his goal by making sure the rest of that bottle of pino doesn’t go to waste. After a shower we check out of the hotel. Some of my teammates are huge into betting so we hit a bar to eat and watch the football games. Next we head to the airport.

Sunday, 5:00pm. We take off from San Antonio. My teammate, looking out for my well being, asks the two sorority girls in front of me to hit me when the beverage cart comes by so I don’t sleep through it this time. The sorority girls are cute so maybe I should have pretended to be asleep. Miraculously the flight is on time and lands 25 minutes early. It doesn’t take too long to get my bag and drag that beast to my car.

Sunday, 11:00pm. I’m home! I have time to unpack and throw in a load of laundry, and then it’s time for bed. This is an early night for a Sunday. After practice I’m usually in bed 2 hours later.

Am I Crazy?

I’ll be 50 in a month, so nobody will fault me for sitting on the couch watching Netflix all night. Instead I’m driving to Chicago for practice twice a week year round, to play a sport where I could, and have, get injured. Most of my side of the family thinks I’m nuts. My mom thinks I’m going to get shot on the expressway. But weekends like this make it worth it. When you are disabled, you spend most of your life trying NOT to get hurt. There are few opportunities to do something physically demanding that even able-bodied people have a hard time doing. On the ice, you’re not disabled. You’re an athlete. You get pushed hard by your coach, your teammates, your opponents, and yourself. Nobody is feeling sorry for you. It is a kind of freedom you find nowhere else.

I am blessed. I get to play a sport I love with some of my best friends. I get to travel around the country for free. I get to stay in nice hotels, and sometimes really crappy hotels. I get those great moments where I score a goal or make a great play. I get those very surreal moments where I’m on the ice bumping shoulders with the best players in the world. I get to watch the Paralympics this winter having known and been on the ice with most of the players.

My wife is also famous for doing crazy things like skydiving, powerlifting, and playing roller derby. I’ve always encouraged it. There will be a time when we physically can’t do things like this. There is no taking a break and coming back 10 years later. So we do it while we can, and live life so we have great stories to tell.