Living on the sledge

Susan Flanagan
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Hockey on sleds may look scary, but can be the thrill of a lifetime

Earlier this fall I took Nos. 3 and 5 plus a friend to Sportsfest down in Pepperrell, at the indoor soccer complex called Techniplex.

I was a little perturbed at first when I found out there was a $5 entry fee per person, but the experience turned out to be more than worth it. Besides trying out sports like lacrosse and biathlon, the three boys also got to put on Terry Fox’s prosthetic leg and try their hand at wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey.

Sledge hockey — which, according to the Hockey Canada website, “was invented by three Swedish wheelchair athletes on a frozen lake in Stockholm in 1961” — was the ultimate thrill. The sleds had been adapted with wheels instead of blades so they could manoeuvre off ice.

Todd Hickey and his son Liam, who sports a Team Canada prosthetic leg, strapped the three boys into the sleds and gave them each two short sticks. With the crampon-like teeth on the butts of the sticks the two teenagers pushed themselves around and tried to thwock the puck in the net past Surprise Baby.

They quickly realized how handy it would be to be ambidextrous. In sledge hockey you can pass the puck from one of your own sticks to the other, even under your sled, and shoot with whichever stick offers the most opportunity. To say it was challenging would be an understatement. On ice, it would be even more so. It’s hard to skate backwards while strapped in a sled.

The real thing

That’s how I come to find myself at Feildian Gardens just before 7 o’clock on a Friday night waiting for the Zamboni to clear the ice for the Newfoundland Sled Dogs practice.

I watch as the players enter the arena, some in wheelchairs, some on prosthetics, many wearing their 12-pound sleds around their necks like gold chains.

Goalie Corey Clarke is the first one ready. He shows me the picks on the butt end of his stick and the thick swath of them on his glove and explains they come in handy when he tips over in net, which happens a lot. Next comes the team’s other goalie Jason Vincent, who shows me his blocker which has, not one, but two thick rows of studs. He sewed them on himself. They look like something out of a horror movie.

“My name is Jason, too,” he laughs.

I begin to think twice about going on the ice with these guys and their spikes.

I see Mel Fitzgerald come in next. On this night he looks sort of like a cross between a member of ZZ Top and Lanny McDonald, if Lanny had just stumbled onto the highway after a year in the woods. His once red beard and handlebar moustache are now greyish white.

OK, I think, no need to panic. Just because these guys have arms like beef buckets and sticks with spikes, does not mean they will choose to aim any pucks or spikes at my helmetless head. In fact Danny Ridgeley, who is both coach and player as well as president of the association, encourages me to lace up with them and give it a try.

“We don’t discriminate,” says Ridgeley. “Able-bodied people can play with us anytime.”

And several do. There are three father-son duos on the team and I recognize Michael Daly, who is in the same grade as my fourth child. He doesn’t seem worried that he may be able-bodied when he heads out on the ice with the Sled Dogs, but he may not go home the same way.

Hasn’t he heard of T-boning? T-boning another sled will get you a penalty, of course, but what if someone cannot manoeuvre well enough to get out of the way. I imagine one sled ramming another and possibly riding up over it.

Ridgeley assures me they’d take it easy on me.

I remain unconvinced until I see petite Danielle Arbour slide into the fray. Danielle is the only female out tonight. She’s not yet a teenager and weighs about as much as a cream puff. Yet she’s heading onto the ice with the likes of these studded men.

“We have four players who graduated from Easter Seals Junior Sledge Hockey who now play with us,” explains Ridgeley, who lost his left leg to cancer at the age of 14. Ridgeley got involved back in the ’80s when the sport was known as ice picking.

“I played for a few years, then gave it up when I came out of remission,” he says. “I just happened to … read an article in the paper about sledge hockey starting up again in the fall of 2004.… So I joined the group … and have not looked back since.”

As a result of that article, written by team captain Nick Nash, there are now 18 players on the Newfoundland Sled Dogs, including five able-bodied players.

The three sets of fathers and sons are Cluney and Michael Mercer; Shaughn and Keith Connors; and Liam and Todd Hickey.

Watching the team warm up, I’m struck by the speed and agility of No. 11 Liam Hickey, who happens to be the guy who helped my boys into their sleds down at the Techniplex. That day Liam was wearing a prosthetic leg emblazoned with the Team Canada logo, but he’s now playing without his prosthetic, which could get broken while on the ice, especially during a T-boning incident. Yikes.

Fresh home from training camp with the national sledge hockey team in Halifax, Liam covers the length of the ice in seconds. Unlike most of the blades on the bottom of the other sleds which are 1-3/4 inches apart, Liam’s two blades are so close together, they appear as one. This makes the sled harder to manoeuvre and easier to tip. But Liam makes it look easy. I guess that’s why at 15, Liam is the youngest to be invited to national training camps.

Mel Fitzgerald, although the oldest player on the team, is not too far behind Liam. You can see his big white beard and handlebar moustache blowing around inside his helmet as he whizzes by on his sled, which like Liam’s has the two blades closer together than most. Grizzly Adams with spiked gear.

If you’re a runner, you’ve probably seen Mel compete as a wheelchair athlete. Winner of the 1977 Tely 10 and veteran of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Mel is a whirling dervish.

The Sled Dogs gather around and listen to their drills. Then they’re in flight. Up and down the rink, turning 360s on the blue lines, shooting on Clarke and Vincent. I am not wearing protective gear so I take this opportunity to exit the ice before I lose my teeth. I may be back, but only if I can drum up enough guts.

If you are as brave as Danielle (Cream Puff) Arbour and want to try a game of sledge hockey, contact Danny Ridgeley at 747-4045 or avalonsleddogs@gmail.com. You’ll need to wear your own upper body hockey gear, but the Sled Dogs can lend you a sled and sticks.

This is a good thing since sleds are usually ordered from a company in Ontario called Unique Inventions, and cost about $500. A custom ballistic sled goes for $749 plus shipping. And because sleds break, it’s recommended that you order two.

If you wanted to see what it’s like to be between the pipes in sledge hockey, don’t think you can just hack off a goalie stick and add spikes because the blade is angled differently than a standard goalie stick. A sledge hockey goalie stick costs about $44, picks not included. Goalie heel and end picks go for about $25. Add shipping costs and you’ll be happy the Sled Dogs can lend you the gear.

Sledge hockey has come a long way since it was introduced in Canada in 1979 by a lady named Jean Lane. By 1993, Sledge Hockey of Canada (SHOC) was created, and in 1994 sledge hockey debuted as an Olympic sport at the Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer.

Between Jan. 24-26, Ridgeley and Fitzgerald and brave Arbour will suit up for the Sled Dogs and travel to Ontario for the 2014 London Blizzard Invitational Sledge Hockey Tournament at the Western Fair Sports Centre in London.

This tournament will be the first time the Sled Dogs will get to show off their new jerseys donated in the memory of player Matt Nippard’s father Leroy, who died as a result of a motorcycle crash a year and a half ago.

“They’re the old Minnesota colours,” says Ridgeley, pointing to the green, black, gold and white jersey with an image of a sledge hockey player above a small Newfoundland dog. The NL Sled Dogs will wear them with pride.

If you’d like to wish the Sled Dogs luck, head up to Feildian Gardens on Pennywell Road between 7 and 9 p.m. on Friday and cheer them on. Don’t worry; they’re not as scary as they look.

Members of the NL Sled Dogs are Capt. Nick Nash, Danny Ridgeley, Liam Hickey, Todd Hickey, Keith Connors, Shaughn Connors, Michael Mercer, Cluney Mercer, Matt Nippard, Mel Fitzgerald, Nicholas Arnold, Todd Hickey, Michael Daly, Troy Simpson, Terry Dunne and, last but not least, Danielle (Cream Puff) Arbour. The team’s website can be found online at www.sport.ca/team/index.php?team=9845.

Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Chyron vs. the Smart Phone feedback

C. Cornick writes: “Susan, you gave up your BlackBerry! How do you survive without a keypad? Anyway, great article, glad your kids could educate you on new mobile. I can't give up my BB, hoping things will turn around for them and I plan to get a new BB with the keypad and touch screen.”

Davis Chislett writes: “I just read your column re technology and I must say I really liked the part about the turntable and where is Jason J. I just got my first iPhone and can sympathize with your reaction. If it wasn’t for kid 1 and 2 as well as long distance to Boston to son-in-law of 3, I would be in the funny house.”

Organizations: Sled Dogs, Team Canada, Hockey Canada Techniplex Western Fair Sports Centre Smart Phone

Geographic location: Feildian Gardens, Stockholm, Ontario Canada Halifax Los Angeles Minnesota Newfoundland Pennywell Road Troy Boston

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