Think that with the pros on the sidelines there’s no ice hockey to watch this weekend? Think again.
At Northtown Center in Amherst, players from around the country – including some world champions – can be seen checking and banging into the boards at the NHL Sled Hockey Classic through Sunday.
“Sled hockey is no different than stand-up hockey in terms of the determination, the effort, the hitting, everything else,” said Brad Roethlisberger of Green Bay, Wis., who will be officiating eight games through the weekend.
What sets these hockey players apart at first glance is that they have all lost limbs – whether from serving in the military, contracting a disease, being injured in an accident or being born that way.
So, instead of standing upright on skates, these athletes move on aluminum “hockey sleds” while fastened into plastic bucket seats, using short hockey sticks to control the puck.
For many, the sheer joy of being on the ice, competing, along with the camaraderie with fellow players, can be exhilarating.
“It’s a blast being able to get back on the ice. Hockey’s my sport of choice,” said Bo Reichenbach.
The 24-year-old Army soldier from Billings, Mont., lost his legs below the knee when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan earlier this year. Now on his way to recovery, he’s captain and goalie of the Washington Capitals, a team of players from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Timothy Hall, 23, also lost his legs in Afghanistan – in his case, after being hit by a mortar.
“When I was first hit, I didn’t think I’d be able to do that much. Sled hockey’s meant a lot,” he said.
For Steve Fortin of Wake Forest, N.C., sled hockey has fulfilled his childhood dream of playing a sport he grew up with in Maine. The father of three, who lost his left leg and hip to cancer, plays goalie for the Carolina team.
“It’s really cool, to completely understate it,” Fortin said. “Everything’s kind of worked out well,” he added. “It’s not how I planned my life, but I’ll take it at this point.”
This third national tournament features 14 teams, some as far away as Denver and Dallas, sponsored by the National Hockey League and bearing the names of NHL teams.
Three players from the Buffalo area played on Team USA, which finished first this year at the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships in Norway, and also took home a gold medal at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010.
One of them, Adam Page, was born with spina bifida, a spinal defect that renders him paralyzed from the knees down.
“Sled hockey gives me the opportunity to play the sport I love and grew up watching on TV, and to be around people just like me,” Page said.
Jeff Sauer, the national team’s coach, gives the sport added credibility. He led the University of Wisconsin Badgers to two NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey championships during his tenure, and he was honored last year with the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy for outstanding service to hockey.
“Sled hockey has rejuvenated me, because these guys are anxious to learn. They listen better than some of the pro players I’ve had over the course of time,” Sauer said.
The Buffalo Sabres sponsor three teams, including one fielded by athletes from the Veteran Affairs Medical Center.
Women play sled hockey, too.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jackie Carter, of Hillsborough, N.C., who suffered a broken back in a car accident 10 years ago that left her paralyzed from the knees down.
Bryan Foley, whose legs were amputated after he was hit by a car three years ago, said the sport is therapeutic.
“Just the therapy alone from being around the guys, the camaraderie, is super beneficial,” Foley said. “Basically, you forget the disability when you’re out there. You’re competing at the highest level you can.”
Norman Page, Adam’s father, helps start and develop sled programs as a USA Sled Hockey volunteer so more people can be exposed to the sport and reap its benefits.
“We’ve been blessed to be able to do this and help others get on the ice,” Page said.
The tournament, which began Friday, continues from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. today and from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.
For information on getting involved with sled hockey, call 984-2585 or visit usahockey.com.