Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sled hockey

"On the off-chance this ever becomes an issue ... which way are we shooting?"

Even for me, it was strange question to ask during a hockey game. This, though, was no ordinary match. This was sled hockey. Designed for disabled players, sled hockey is played --as the name suggests-- on sleds. These devices resemble metal stretchers supported on short twin blades with a plastic bucket seat on one end.

A member of my regular hockey team coaches in a sled hockey league and, finding her team had an hour of extra ice time at the end of their season, she suggested we come and try it out in an exhibition match. There is clearly no other answer to such a suggestion than 'hell yes!' and it was utterly awesome. The 'exhibition' naturally turned out to be us, rather than the game, but this was suspected well in advance of the reality.

The first obstacle I had to cross occurred in the changing room when I attempted to put my hockey gear on without my skates. The issue was not the emotional guilt from leaving my skates in my bag (although that was rather sad) but simply that my kit goes on in a certain order. Like Ikea furniture, forgetting one of the steps usually results in the end product falling to pieces. In this case, my shin pads felt dangerously slippy.

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem since my ankles got taped to the sled. What was more of an issue was getting my GIGANTIC BACKSIDE into the tiny plastic seat. If the proceeding game wasn't enough to wreak my ego, this would have sealed the deal. It transpired later that sled hockey players don't wear the same padded shorts as skaters in the traditional game (IT'S TRUE I TELL YOU!). They either wear lighter shorts similar to those used in roller hockey or just leggings. As a result, I had to be levered into my sled by the referee.

Then I was off!

.... if I could work out how to move. Instead of a single long stick for manoeuvring the puck, sled hockey players have two short sticks roughly a third of the length of a traditional hockey stick. The shooting blade on each is the same size and shape as a full-sized stick but the reverse end is equipped with metal teeth that are dug into the ice to propel you forwards. It was quite like rowing a boat on frozen water. When you wanted to hit the puck, you inverted the stick to put the blade against the ice and shot towards the goal. At least, that was the idea.

The sled blades were adjustable and could be set at different distances apart. Ours were separated by about half a foot rather like the training wheels on a bicycle. A few of the real team members had theirs mounted so close together they looked like a single blade. This forfeited stability in favour for manoeuvrability. Since I had a habit of tipping over, being unable to do handbreak turns on one stick was not overly upsetting. Normally when I fell to one side, I was able to righten myself with one hefty push. However, while guarding the goal (probably from nothing, I have no idea where the puck was at the time), I tipped over so fully that I partially came un-wedged from my seat. This meant that when I tilted back up, my centre-of-mass was off to one side and I just fell down in the opposite direction. Team members surrounded me like a bovine heard around a wounded animal. However, since we were all tied into our sleds, no one was able to provide the leverage and stability to correct the problem. In the end the referee (laughing hard) appeared to stuff me back into position. Time to go!

Never had the ice rink looked so big. None of us were used to working our arm muscles so much and we couldn't yet move at any great speed. Someone sped past me, guiding the puck with one stick and manoeuvring with the other. He approached the goal, lifted the entire sled up about an inch, and shot the puck underneath it to land in the net.

I waved my sticks a bit in stunned admiration.

When the whistle blew, I cut myself free of the tape round my ankles and tumbled unceremoniously onto the ice. Strangely, one of the sorest parts of me was not my arms but my unused legs. This is apparently not uncommon, since you do not normally sit with your legs absolutely still for an extended period of time.

I picked up the sled and carried it to the store room noting, with some surprise, that many of the regular players did the same. Upon inquiring, I discovered that to play in the sled hockey league, you have to have some form of disability, which need not be physical. This led to one very important question:

If you could walk, why on earth is sled hockey considered easier than the traditional sport?

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