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At Wilmington's Ristuccia Arena, Sled Hockey Players Love Their Game

Thursday, July 24, 2014, 9:24PM
Norwell's 9-year-old Catherine Faherty dons her gear before a recent sled hockey open house in Wilmington, where she happily scraps with a rising star in the sport, David Eustace, 15, of Stoneham.
By Brion O'Connor
Boston Globe Correspondent

It's a whirlwind on the ice as a dozen hockey players scurry like water bugs across the surface at Ristuccia Arena, chasing the puck and one another. They come in various shapes and sizes. They are male and female, youngsters and adults, with several military veterans among them. But these aren't your typical skaters: All are strapped to thin sleds, in sitting positions, atop double-runner blades. All clutch two short sticks to control, pass, and shoot the puck and propel themselves along the ice.

First, there's her bright pink helmet and sunflower yellow jersey. Second, she's the smallest player, by a considerable margin, at 4 feet 3 inches tall and weighing a mere 65 pounds. Yet she's always in the middle of the action, pinballing into players more than twice her size. “She's a fighter,” said Catherine's mother, Mary, of Norwell, with a smile. “That's what makes Catherine such a good hockey player. She doesn't give up. She's persistent.”

Catherine is so good it's easy to forget that she has a physical disability. She was born with spina bifida, a neurological condition that impedes normal growth and function of the brain stem and spinal cord. When she's not on the ice — or in a swimming pool — she uses a wheelchair to get around. On the ice, though, atop her sled, Catherine is transformed. “This lets her feel like everybody else,” said her mother. “She does a ton of adaptive sports, but this is her favorite. The first time she got on the ice, the smile on her face said it all. The freedom she must have felt.”

Asked how often she'd like to skate each week, Catherine thought for a moment before answering: “Five or six days.” That's the idea behind the sled hockey open houses sponsored by the Boston Shamrocks, an elite youth and junior hockey program. As the official practice facility of the Boston Bruins, Ristuccia hosts some of the best hockey players in the world. But on selected Saturday afternoons throughout the summer, the rink is showcasing a very different discipline of the sport, one that is growing quickly. On this particular day, players from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire all suited up.

“Our goal is to create enough awareness so that, hopefully in the fall, we can put together a youth team and an adult team” based at Ristuccia, said Worcester resident Richard Fask, the state's representative for USA Hockey's Disabled Section. “Once we get those established, we'll target the south, maybe the Foxborough area, or South Boston, or the South Shore. And then we'll head toward my neck of the woods, in Central Massachusetts, in the Marlborough area.”

When she arrived at Ristuccia in her wheelchair on a recent Saturday along with 6-year-old Gavin Ford of North Reading (who also has spina bifida), Catherine's eyes lighted up and she broke into a broad smile as she asked, “Is David here?”

“David” is 15-year-old Stoneham resident David Eustace, a former teammate on Catherine's Northeast Passage Wildcats team at the University of New Hampshire. Eustace was a kindergartner when an elderly driver plowed into a group of students and parents outside Stoneham's Central Elementary School on Oct. 1, 2004. He lost his left leg below the knee, and continues to wear a brace on his right ankle.

Though Eustace also plays baseball, with the aid of a prosthetic, hockey is where he shines. Now 6 feet tall and 150 pounds, the Stoneham High sophomore recently graduated from the Northeast Passage development team to the adult squad, where he'll train with three-time Paralympian Taylor Chace, a New Hampshire native who won the 2010 and 2014 gold medals with Team USA. Eustace recently attended the national team's development camp in Buffalo. “Just because I'm missing a leg, I'm no more limited with one leg than I would be with two,” said Eustace. “I can still play hockey, but just in a different way. I want to go to the Paralympics, and I want to win a gold medal with the USA team.”

A Growing Challenge

The sled hockey sessions at Ristuccia are free, and offer disabled athletes more ice time. But they're also designed to raise awareness, and give the uninitiated an opportunity to try the sport. Anyone can participate. USA Hockey has provided the Shamrocks with 10 loaner sleds, and Ristuccia is collecting more equipment.

“You have to start someplace, and that's what we're trying to do,” said Bob Rotundo, general manager at Ristuccia and owner of the Boston Shamrocks program. “These sessions give everybody the opportunity to understand what it is, and to try it. Whether they're handicapped or not, they can get out there and experience it.”

According to J.J. O'Connor, chairman of USA Hockey's Disabled Section, there are two crucial elements to growing the sport of sled hockey. “Number one, you need ice,” said O'Connor, who lives in Mount Prospect, Ill. “The second thing you need is a good leader. You need a point person that's your spearhead, and is going to drive everything. If you have those two things, everything else will fall in place — the fund-raising, the equipment, recruiting players. All of those things can happen, but you have to have a good group of people running it, and ice time.”

In the past year, Rotundo donated equipment to the Northeast Passage program and a Wounded Warrior project for veterans in Vermont. This spring, he stepped up to host a team. Judging from the turnout at a recent skate in Wilmington, the Shamrocks program has ample support, not only from Rotundo but a raft of volunteers.

“I ran the Learn to Skate program at Parkway Youth Hockey for seven years,” said Nick McCummings, a of West Roxbury resident. “But once I did the adaptive program, I knew where my energies had to go.”

Dr. David Crandell, inpatient medical director of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital's amputee program and a representative for USA Hockey's Disabled Section, said the Boston Blades sled hockey team had a regular Wednesday night shift on the ice at the then-Metropolitan District Commission's Devine Rink in Dorchester back in the late 1990s. The team, led by Needham's Dale Wise, featured a wide range of talent, from “pure novice up to national team players,” said Crandell. However, once the donated ice time disappeared, so did the Boston Blades.  “Boston became a desert for sled hockey,” said Crandell.

UNH's Northeast Passage essentially replaced the Boston program. Wise turned his attention to Western Massachusetts, where philanthropist Albert Ferst built the Amelia Park Ice Arena in Westfield and established a sled hockey program. The Amelia Park program, which has hosted numerous New England invitational tournaments, is home to the Springfield Sliders youth and the Westfield Knights adult sled hockey programs. Wise said it's the gold standard in Massachusetts in part because of the ongoing support of the nonprofit Albert & Amelia Ferst Operating Foundation.

Wise, who played hockey at Needham High, was diagnosed with cancer in 1978. His left leg was amputated above the knee in 1993. On a recent Saturday, he visited the Shamrocks open house and was encouraged. “The problem is, there aren't enough teams,” he said. “Where do you go to play? To have this here, this is fantastic.”

Perhaps even more significant, said Wise, is that programs like the Shamrocks introduce sled hockey to disabled athletes at a younger age. “It's important to get them active early,” said Wise, whose son Andy was born with spina bifida. “If they didn't do anything until they were 14, they wouldn't want to do it.”

Fask said sled hockey got a local boost when the New England Sports Center in Marlborough hosted the USA Hockey Disabled Sports Festival in 2008, and again this spring. The festival features hockey competitors in four categories: sled, “special” (encompassing emotional and cognitive handicaps), standing amputee, and deaf. The number of sled teams increased from 20 with roughly 240 players in 2008 to 36 teams and more than 400 players this year, said O'Connor.

“I find that the kids, and all the way through the adults, are an amazing group of people who've been through some traumatic accidents, or born with some disability, that they've had to overcome,” said Fask. “Hockey is an unbelievable vehicle for that. I've seen not only sled players, but also special hockey players, who have just blossomed because of the game. It's incredibly rewarding.”

Covering The Cost

It's also expensive. Sleds cost in the vicinity of $600, and the sticks (players use two sticks equipped with spikes to propel them) cost another $50. To ensure continued success of the Shamrocks program, Rotundo is actively recruiting corporate sponsorship. Among the first to volunteer was James Berberian of Andover, co-owner of several local Orange Leaf frozen yogurt franchises. The inspiration for his contributions is his able-bodied daughter, Meggan Rodriguez, 15, who plays hockey for Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn. “Hockey changed her as a person,” he said. “When she was young, she had very little confidence.”

As his daughter improved on the ice, said Berberian, her confidence off the ice soared. “These kids, they have even more to overcome besides shyness,” said Berberian. “My daughter was just shy. You can only imagine what some of them have to deal with. If a sport, especially a sport I love, can help with these kids, then I have to give.”

Watching a scrimmage, Rotundo said the fledgling Shamrocks sled program offers a healthy dose of perspective for hockey parents. “There are no crazy parents here. There are no delusional parents here,” he said. “There are just parents who've donated their whole life, and all the money in the world that they have, to try to keep these kids going. “These other people should come over here and realize how lucky they are that their kids can play, and that they shouldn't [complain] about their kid getting two seconds less than Johnny on that last line change,” he said. “Come over here and see what two seconds means to these kids.”

The Ristuccia open houses feature young players rubbing elbows with adults, disabled players racing against able-bodied players. Everyone is in a sled. Everyone competes.

“What's most important about Catherine, you have to look at her drive, and that look in her eyes. Watch how intense she is,” Rotundo said. “And little Gavin is the same way. It gives them a purpose. And this is fun.”

Mary Faherty has witnessed that joy in her daughter.  “It's the love of her life,” Faherty said of Catherine. “She's found something that she truly enjoys, that she loves to do. She'll give up almost anything to play hockey.''

Above story reprinted from The Boston Globe.
For original story see July 24, 2014 Boston Globe.
Brion O'Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.