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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, January 27, 2011
Sledge hockey levels the playing field for the gutsy Sled Warriors
By Saranac Hale Spencer
Carving arcs around the rink, the Capital District Sled Warriors are graceful under the hulk of their hockey uniforms.
Their feet are stretched before them while they balance in a bucket seat and use their arms to propel themselves with picks on the ends of their hockey sticks.
The dozen kids on the team play hockey despite their physical disabilities.
“He has that drive in him to be competitive,” said Kim Wilson of her son Luke, who has cerebral palsy and uses leg braces to walk.
Luke and his twin brother, Benjamin, have loved hockey since they were toddlers. Benjamin has played hockey for years, having learned to skate at the age of 2.
When Wilson heard about sled hockey from her neighbor in 2002, she tried to find a team for Luke, but the closest one was in Springfield, Mass., she said.
Four years later, she found that Tom Brake, president of the United States Sled Hockey Association, lived not far from her parents in New Jersey. She asked him about starting a team.
On Brake’s advice, she approached Bethlehem Youth Hockey, where Ben plays, for support. The team was very receptive, she said from the stands of the Albany Academy rink where the Sled Warriors were practicing on Sunday.
Wilson was then faced with gathering equipment one sled costs around $600. For a while, she borrowed sleds from a Rochester team that had stopped practicing, and then she got two sleds from the River Rats, a minor league hockey team that played in Albany before moving to Charlotte, N.C. The sled hockey team later got a grant from Albany County’s child and family services.
When the team merged with STRIDE (Sports and Therapeutic Recreation Instruction/Developmental Education), a local not-for-profit organization that hosts sports programs for people with special needs, it was able to choose its own name and logo, Wilson said. That’s when the kids voted for the name “Sled Warriors,” which carries with it a lunging knight.
“It just feels right. I can’t explain it,” said Stefon Stilwell of what he likes about the sport. He’s been playing since October, after he found the team at an assistive technology expo where the Sled Warriors had a table to spread information.
“I love to go fast and I like to score goals,” said 13-year-old Jessica Truax. It’s also a “good way to get your mind off things,” she said.
Luke Wilson, who is 16, said that he likes “just being part of the team.” He hopes to make the United States Paralympic Sled Hockey team. The sport was introduced at the 1994 Lillehammer games.
Sled hockey, called sledge hockey in its native Sweden, was invented at a rehabilitation center in Stockholm in the 1960s “by a group of Swedes who, despite their physical disability, wanted to continue playing Hockey,” according to the International Paralympic Committee. “The men modified a metal frame sled, or sledge, with two regular-sized Ice Hockey skate blades that allowed the puck to pass underneath. Using round poles with bike handles for sticks, the men played without any goaltenders on a lake south of Stockholm.”
The Sled Warriors practice at Albany Academy’s rink with high school student coaches Jake Nussbaum and Danny Golderman.
“They listen to you, but to a certain degree,” Nussbaum, a senior at Voorheesville’s high school, said of coaching his peers. He played hockey with the Bethlehem youth team until his freshman year, when he started coaching the sled hockey team. “It just gives me a good feeling,” he said of the work.
“He’s good at explaining things,” said Kathy Macri, whose son plays on the team.
Alex Macri, her son, likes the mood of the sport. He doesn’t have a physical disability, but he likes the sled setup. “You just push yourself,” he said. “Your arms just swing you’re just gliding.”
Ben Ferber, who began coaching the team after he got home from serving in the Army in 2006, grew up playing hockey.
“Hockey is one of those sports where you’ve got to be rough around the edges,” he said. Coaching the team and being around the kids helped him adjust to being back home, Ferber said. A couple of years after he started, he met the woman who would become his wife, who has a son, Logan, with cerebral palsy. Logan now plays on the Sled Warriors.
“I like building up the player,” Ferber said. “I like watching the kids develop and become better players.” As a coach, he focused on the team as whole, he said, but now he’s been able to indulge in being a parent.
“They’re just having fun,” Ferber said. “For an hour and a half, they’re not disabled… The playing field is level.”
The sled warriors will play a demonstration game during the Arctic Foxes annual fund-raiser, which will benefit STRIDE this year, on Feb. 5 at 5:50 p.m. at the Clifton Park Arena.
On Feb. 11, the Sled Warriors will play a demonstration game against a youth hockey team in Glens Falls at 7:40 p.m.
The following weekend, the Sled Warriors will participate in the 18th annual Rink Rat Tournament at the Albany County Hockey Facility and Frear Park in Troy.