Disabled Athletes Bring Bravado To The Ice In Sled Hockey

Bravado, body checking and broken bones are all surprisingly commonplace in sled hockey — a sport designed for people with mobility limitations.

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Bravado and broken bones are commonplace in sled hockey. That's a version of ice hockey played primarily by the disabled. And the competition can be fierce. Patrick Skahill of member station WNPR reports from Newington, Connecticut, where amateur teams are hitting the ice hard for fun.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: So let's not overcomplicate this. If you've ever watched ice hockey, then you probably understand the rules of sled hockey. There's penalties, passing, goals, puck handling and checking. Actually, there's a lot of checking.

TYLER KONVENT: It's not like, hey, look at these special kids playing hockey. It's - this guy's head just popped off.

SKAHILL: Tyler Konvent plays offense for the Connecticut Wolfpack and has a lot of tattoos. Two years ago, he led his league in penalties.

KONVENT: Nobody thinks it's as physical as it is. You know, I've cracked my collarbone. I've broken my wrist. You just kind of play.

SKAHILL: Players sit on sleds that look a lot like the wheelchairs road racers use, except there are no wheels. The sled balances on two small hockey blades mounted right next to each other underneath the sled. The whole contraption rests about 6 inches off the ice. Each player has two small hockey sticks. One end looks like a regular stick, but the other end holds small metal ice picks, which players dig into the ice to propel the sled.

KONVENT: Kind of compared to figure skater toe picks, but sharper and more scary-looking. I can't tell you how many times I've just dragged my hand across it and I'm like, oh, good, I'm bleeding. This is great.

SKAHILL: Needless to say, the picks do a pretty good job tearing up the ice for the Zamboni driver. But it's not just guys playing sled hockey. Rachel Grusse, a double amputee, just took up the sport. She is still learning how to balance.

RACHEL GRUSSE: It's not an easy thing to get used to. You get in and you're like, oh, crap.

SKAHILL: But after a few practices, Grusse said she got the hang of it. And once she is outfitted with all the proper safety equipment, she'll be ready to start roughing it up with the guys.

GRUSSE: I'm really excited to be hit because once I learn how to get hit, then I can learn how not to fall over.

SKAHILL: Kelly Lavoie is a bit more experienced. She says playing defense for the Wolfpack is a great outlet for her competitive side.

KELLY LAVOIE: I'm probably stronger than most people think I am, so when I get a really good check on somebody, they roll about 50 feet into the boards, and it's great. That's my favorite thing to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't know. I kind of feel like (unintelligible). They (unintelligible)...

SKAHILL: In the locker room, players talk about the game and trade jokes. And Konvent says the humor can be as rough as the game.

KONVENT: Like, we have a really bad sense of humor. Like, when we're at big tournaments, we like to go into other people's locker rooms and take their legs and put them in places they can't reach.

SKAHILL: Today, the Wolfpack lost a close match to the New Jersey Freeze. But once the competition and the pranks die down...

KONVENT: Bad as it sounds, we all go out, we all drink, we all have a good time. You know, it's fun.

SKAHILL: There'll be plenty of that when dozens of sled hockey teams meet in March for the USA Hockey-sponsored Disabled Fest in Pennsylvania. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford.

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