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Clear sledding: Sled hockey provides a competitive outlet for disabled athletes

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By Laura Herrington Watson

Robynne Hill played competitive soccer until the age of 12, when she developed a nervous system disorder that causes intense pain in her legs. But four years later, she is thrilled to be part of another competitive sport: sled hockey. 

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Now 16, Hill catches a ride from Colorado Springs with her mom for practices and games at The Edge Ice Arena, where she has been playing with the Colorado Avalanche Sled Hockey Team for just over a year. 

 

“On that first Saturday — it was Oct. 6 — I tried out sled hockey, and after that one time I loved it,” Hill says. “My legs didn’t hurt. I was so happy that I could be competitive again.” 

The team kicked off its season Nov. 16 with a scrimmage between the youth unit and the Colorado Adaptive Sports Foundation board members, followed by a game between the senior Avalanche team and the St. Louis Blues. 

Corey Fairbanks, director of the Colorado Adaptive Sports Foundation, is a muscular sled hockey player himself. Fairbanks says the sport is ideal for people with physical disabilities who still want to be athletic.

The youth sled hockey team, which practices at the Ice Ranch in Littleton, is open to all athletes ages 5 to 17. It’s the only competitive youth sled hockey team in Colorado, and athletes from Fort Collins and Colorado Springs drive to Littleton to participate. 

Coach David Finn, who has two kids on the team, says it can be challenging to find other teams to play, so the Little Avs sometimes compete against able-bodied hockey players trying out sled hockey for the first time. 

“It’s fantastic awareness for able-bodied kids,” Fairbanks says. 

In April, the team took second place at the national Disabled Festival tournament in Dallas, which Finn says ignited a new passion. The team is excited to return to the USA Hockey Disabled Fest next spring, and Finn is making plans to go to a tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind., in February.  

Part of her life

For Robynne Hill, sled hockey is a central part of her life. Hill trains for hockey on her own, doing hand-cycling with hockey teammates in Denver’s Washington Park in the summer, and attending stick-and-puck sessions at a local ice rink. 

“I get a lot of questions about sled hockey,” Hill says, but she says players treat her the same as any other skater.

Hill enjoys the competition, coaching and encouragement that her youth team receives from the adult team. Two Paralympian sled hockey players on the adult team, Nikko Landeros and Tyler Carron, have inspired Hill to shoot for the 2013 national team and the Paralympics, but first she wants to win the Disabled Fest in Philadelphia this spring. 

Growing in popularity

The youth team, which started in 2000 with only a handful of kids, now has 30 players at practice each Saturday. 

Finn says coaching a large and diverse pool of athletes can be challenging. Every team member has a different disability and is in a different position in the sled, and everyone has a different style of pushing the puck. 

Finn says he has to be “as adaptive as the sport is. As long as we keep an open a mind as the kids have, we’re good.”

Finn takes his coaching cues from the parents on how hard to push each athlete.

Nine-year-old Malik Jones is one team member whom Finn pushes as hard as he can. 

Decked in a burgundy and white Little Avs jersey, hockey gear and tennis shoes, Malik is strapped into his hockey sled and pulled onto the ice. He uses two short hockey sticks that sport teeth to propel himself across the rink. 

Malik is fast. He zips in and out between the adult hockey players, always ahead of the pack, eager to be the first to the puck. When he reaches the puck, he twists the stick in his hand and uses the flat side to slap the puck toward the opposition goal. When he scores, his smile lights up the rink.