Same sport, sled required

By Katy Nielsen

The puck drops and two players fight for possession. With hands armed with shortened hockey sticks, they steer across the rink with their upper bodies and slam into each other, all while strapped into sleds. Most of these players

are paraplegics.

Sled or sledge hockey is a Paralympics sport, but the game follows the same rules as ice hockey. Every Wednesday and Sunday, the Rehab Institute of Chicago’s sled hockey team, the RIC Blackhawks, takes to the ice at McFetridge Sports Center, 3843 N. California Ave.

“It is a great physical exercise for anybody,” said Bill Bogdan, disability liaison to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and one of the RIC Blackhawks. “I just really love the sport. I grew up with my disability and never got the chance to be on a real sports team before.”

The team was founded in 1999 by two men; one of them was Patrick Byrne, a Paralympian who helps oversee the RIC Blackhawks’ training now.

Before Byrne lost his leg in a 1992 accident, he never played hockey. But the first time he tried it, he said he was hooked.

“When I lost my leg I had nothing,” Byrne said. “I thought my life was over. This gave me my life back.”

Sled hockey rules are the same as regular hockey, but players are on sleds equipped with two hockey blades underneath.

The closer the sled’s blades are to one another, the more maneuverability players have. However, balancing is easier for beginners when the blades are farther apart.

“Players use both of their hands to move themselves around, but the game is the same. It’s a full contact sport,” said RIC Blackhawks Head Coach Dan Tun. “Players wear standard shin guards, helmets and elbow and shoulder pads like other hockey players.”

Tun is able-bodied and uses regular hockey skates, but he has coached the team for the past year and a half because he said he enjoys the sport so much.

“If you’re going to play sled hockey, you can’t be afraid to get hit,” Bogdan said. “It’s a little slower compared to playing hockey on ice skates, but it’s a very fast-paced disability sport.”

Eric DiLorenzo is a goalie for the RIC Blackhawks. He started playing sled hockey with the park district when he was in

elementary school.

“It can be a little scary at times being a goalie, but I love it,” DiLorenzo said.

In terms of the game rules, the big differences between sled and regular hockey are a few penalty calls, according to the players.

“T-boning is when you take your sled and ram it into another sled, and you form a ‘T,’ [and] that’s illegal,” Bogdan said. “Depending on the severity, that’s a two-minute penalty.”

While the sport is highly physical, members of the RIC Blackhawks talked about team camaraderie. For many players like Bogdan, who had never been on a sports team before, this is a chance to be part of something special.

Byrne and several of the RIC Blackhawks were on the U.S. Paralympian team in 2002. The team won the gold medal at the Salt Lake City Paralympics in 2002.

“Eight out of the 11 players we had at the time made the team,” Byrne said. “That’s unbelievable for a single organization.”

While sled hockey is not a sport exclusively for disabled people, according to the International Paralympic Committee’s sledge hockey rule book, a player must have an obvious physical impairment that makes ordinary skating impossible.

Most of the players on the RIC Blackhawks have a physical disability, but two members of the team are able-bodied. They may not be able to compete in the Paralympics, but that doesn’t stop them from joining in.

“It’s not like this is a special game for people in wheelchairs,” Byrne said. “We play this at a very high level.”