Over the weekend, the Consol Energy Center, the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins, saw a different brand of hockey on its ice as sled hockey teams associated with NHL clubs competed in the 2013 Sled Classic. The 16 squads in the four-day tournament were connected with Pittsburgh, Carolina, Florida, Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York (Rangers), Los Angeles, Colorado, Dallas, Nashville, Washington, Boston, and Columbus, and they competed in three divisions. Yesterday, Buffalo, Washington, and Nashville won their divisions and skated away as 2013 sled hockey champions.
Here's a video recap of the tournament from the Penguins' website:
Now, you might be wondering: What is sled hockey? Sled hockey (called sledge hockey in Europe) was created in Sweden in 1960 as a way to get people with physical disabilities back on the ice. The basics of sled hockey are the same as regular (or stand-up) hockey. Games are played on regulation-sized rinks, the same penalties get called, and the action is just as intense. But the primary difference is that players use sleds instead of skates to maneuver around the ice. Sled hockey players can be paralyzed below the waist or missing a leg, so they can't skate like an able-bodied hockey player. So they sit in a sled and propel themselves using their sticks. On one end is a blade, just like a regular stick, but on the other end is a really sharp pick that they use to dig into the ice and give themselves some speed. Think of it like skate blades on the butt end of a hockey stick.
Since it was created, sled hockey has grown into a Paralympic sport played all over the world, including in South Korea, Japan, Italy, Germany, Norway, and Canada. Like wheelchair basketball, sled hockey gives the physically disabled an opportunity to participate in sports, and be part of a team. That's true in the US, too. But in this country, the sport takes on an added importance.
Every day, wounded veterans are returning home after their service in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of conflict. And as they rehab their injuries, groups like the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Comfort are helping veterans get back into an active civilian life through sports — including introducing them to sled hockey. Numerous teams around the country now have veterans on them, including the national team and the squads that competed in the 2013 Sled Classic. (The Washington Capitals sled hockey team is made up entirely of veterans.)
Sled hockey is a sport that skates under the radar. At first it's a little weird to see hockey played in sleds rather than on skates. But like the able-bodied game, sledge is a rough sport that takes a lot of athleticism and a ton of talent. If you're a hockey fan, give sled hockey a look. There are lots of videos online to get you familiar with the sport. To get you started, here's the US team's heavy-hitting 2010 Paralympic gold medal game against Japan.
You can learn more about sled hockey on the USA Hockey website.
Photo courtesy USA Hockey