Sled hockey, also known as sledge hockey outside the United States, is a fast paced, highly physical, team ice sport that allows individuals with physical disabilities to enjoy the sport of ice hockey. The sport follows the same rules and structure as “stand-up hockey” and is just as thrilling. It was invented at a rehabilitation center during the early 1960’s in Stockholm, Sweden by three disabled athletes who, despite their physical disabilities, wanted to continue to play the sport of ice hockey. The men modified a medal sled frame with two regular size hockey skates. Using round poles with bikes handles as sticks, they played on a frozen lake in South Stockholm.
Sled hockey today has not evolved much over time. It is played by participants sitting in a metal sled, or sledge, with two hockey blades that allows the puck to pass underneath. Players use two three-foot-long sticks with a blade on one end for puck handling and shooting and a pick on the other end for maneuvering and propulsion. Sled hockey allows athletes, no matter their disability, to play all levels of the great game of ice hockey.
The sport was an instant success and caught on quickly. By 1969, Stockholm had five teams that included players with physical impairments, as well as able-bodied players that competed for the Stockholm city championship. That same year, Swedish players introduced the sport to their Norwegian neighbors and hosted their first international sled hockey match.
In 1994, sled hockey was introduced at the Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway and became an official full medal event. Today sled hockey is one of the most popular events in the Paralympic Games.
The popularity of sled hockey is on the rise throughout the U.S. Many DSUSA (Disabled Sports USA) chapters offer sled hockey opportunities, as do other independent club sled hockey programs, such as The USA Warriors. The USA Warriors is an ice hockey program based in Washington, D.C. They train and supply injured servicemen and women with hockey equipment and the skills needed to use the sport of ice hockey as a rehabilitation tool to overcome both physical and mental injuries sustained either in combat or in defense of the United States of America.
“The players on the USA Warriors are either service members or military veterans, most of whom have suffered a severe injury in combat,” said Thomas Hirsch, Immediate Past President of the USA Warriors. “Playing together with other injured service members or veterans has created a sense of camaraderie that is not usually seen on a sports team. The team has become in a sense of substitution for a military unit in which the players can identify closely with each other and rely on each other. Plus, the sport of sled hockey is rough and since their injury, these players have not been able to be rough again.”
With the players coming from similar military backgrounds, they exhibit qualities shown in a military base. They are disciplined, determined, unquestioningly support the collective and jointly work together as one unit. Comradeship is the element upon which all successful military operations are based on, as well as all successful hockey teams.
Their military backgrounds aren’t the only factor they have in common that’s generating a sense of camaraderie and fellowship. Being around other paraplegic athletes that have been through similar experiences is motivating and expedites an empathetic relationship in which assists a sense of commitment and dedication out on the ice.
“Since having a disability is usually the qualification to be eligible to play sled hockey, a player’s situation is not actually a disability when it comes to playing sled hockey,” said Hirsch. “For example, in many cases, it is an advantage in sled hockey for the player to be a double, instead of a single amputee. The players on the USA Warriors are mostly service members or veterans with an amputation suffered from a combat injury. These players are highly skilled athletes who happen to be missing a limb. They really are not disabled when it comes to playing sled hockey.”
Sled hockey requires a lot of abilities such as strength, balance and determination.
“The team undergoes intense and repeated hockey practices to gain more and more hockey experience and skills as well as cardiovascular training on and off the ice,” Hirsch explained.
The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program was organized to operate exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, for United States Military personnel wounded in defense of the United States in conjunction with the USA Disabled Hockey Program. The Program’s mission is to organize and administer an ice hockey program that provides a recreational, therapeutic experience and education to its participants. They have created a wonderful program that creates opportunities for injured veterans and servicemen to participate in the wonderful sport of hockey. They hope to one day see their program grow.
“Because the benefits that I have seen from the USA Warriors program, I would like to see “warrior” programs be formed across the country so that these benefits can be shared with other service members and veterans who have been injured in defense of our nation,” said Hirsch. “We have assisted in the formation of “warrior” programs both sled and standing hockey in Minnesota, Buffalo and Columbus.”
Sled hockey is a sport for all abilities. If you’re interested in participating in the thrilling sport where having a disability is an advantage, develop bonds with other athletes who have shared similar experiences and all have the same motive, then don’t hesitate.
“Get ready to have fun and be a true athlete despite your current physical and mental condition”, said Hirsch.
Want to join a sled hockey team? Find your nearest team here.
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Facebook: USA Warriors Ice Hockey
*Photos courtesy USA Warriors