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Sled Hockey Gets Everyone Into The Game

Friday, February 12, 2016, 10:47AM
Nick McCummings (left) helped Kate Turner, a Billerica High senior and a hockey player for the Boston Shamrocks, with her hockey sled at the Everett rink, where she volunteered.
By Brion O'Connor
Boston Globe Correspondent

The cacophony inside a rink is familiar to any hockey fan. Pucks banging off boards, steel blades carving through ice, players shouting or tapping their sticks indicating they're open. Those sounds can be heard at Everett's Allied Veterans Memorial Rink, Charlestown's Emmons Horrigan O'Neil Memorial Rink, Dedham's Noble and Greenough School, Marlborough's New England Sports Center, and Brockton's Asiaf Arena.  But the sights found in these rinks are often very different than a typical hockey game. Helmeted players scurry about while strapped into sleds, their sticks equipped with spikes to propel themselves as they fight for the puck.

Liam Flanagan loves that battle. The 10-year-old from Andover, who has a nondegenerative neuromotor condition, is a five-year veteran of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital's Adaptive Sports & Recreation sled hockey program.  “It was the first team sport I played that my team played the same way I did,” he said. “I liked the speed of the game and the chance to go fast in my sled.  “Sled hockey is not as easy as it looks,” he said. “Stand-up hockey players think it is easy because I'm sitting down. You need to have a lot of upper body strength and power to play. I like to laugh when I see stand-up hockey players try it and fail because they get so tired.”

For Brian Bardell of Bellingham, the promise of a game means hockey heaven.  “In short, sled hockey kicks my butt,” said Bardell, 36. “It's an amazing workout that you don't even realize you're getting, because you're immersed in the fun and competition of it. Until the next day, of course, when you feel like a train hit you.  “It's an incredible feeling to be part of a team again, to get off the ice dripping with sweat, and not be able to wait to come back.”

Bardell was playing competitive volleyball in late 2014 when he was diagnosed with liposarcoma in his left hamstring. After eight rounds of chemotherapy failed to shrink the large tumor, amputation was his only option. Last June, surgeons removed Bardell's left leg at the hip.  This past December, Bardell returned to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for aggressive gait training. There, he met Dr. David Crandell, who helped pioneer adaptive hockey in the Boston area.

Crandell encouraged Bardell to connect with Terry Downey, a physical therapist who helps organize the sled hockey sessions sponsored by Spaulding adaptive sports. Bardell's first skate was at Gillette Stadium, during the NHL Winter Classic festivities on Dec. 31.  “I haven't missed a day since,” said Bardell. “I couldn't play hockey as a kid because I was pigeon-toed and couldn't skate to save my life. Not only do I get to play a sport again, I get to play hockey, which has always been a family passion.”

According to Somerville's Zoe Norcross, the adaptive sports group's network coordinator, the goal of the Massachusetts Sled Hockey Initiative is “to provide access to the sport for all individuals, support competitive team play, and encourage athlete development.” Nearly everyone of almost any age, male and female, disabled as well as able-bodied athletes, can participate. John Young, 80, of Abington, is a shining example.  “The great thing about that is family members and friends can play side by side, where other sports programs are often just for the person with a disability,” said Downey. “Once on the ice, in the sleds, the athletes are on an even playing field. It's a humbling experience for the able-bodied player.”

Next winter, Spaulding Adaptive Sports will field a team — the Spaulding Shamrocks — in the inaugural season of the Northeast Sled Hockey League.

A gift from Dr. Bernard and Edna Sears allows participants to play at no cost. Worcester's Richard Fask, the state's representative to the USA Hockey's Disabled Section, said fund-raising is a continual need for sled hockey programs. Corporate grants help, but ice time donations are essential.

Everett native Bob Rotondo, owner of the Boston Shamrocks Junior Women's Hockey League team and the manager of Ristuccia Memorial Arena in Wilmington and the Allied Veterans Memorial Rink in Everett, supports disabled players with ice time.  “I saw [sled hockey] once, and decided I need to do this, because these kids need a break,” Rotondo said. “These kids get onto the ice for an hour every now and then, and they make every effort to have the best time.”

On a recent Saturday, several Shamrock players, including Billerica High senior Kate Turner (Left) and Sophia Quick (Right), spent some time on sleds at the Everett rink to help out other players.

Bardell plans to volunteer to ensure continued success of the program. “Every participant needs to be fitted with gear. Some need help putting it on, then getting them on and off the ice, not to mention running the practice itself on the ice,” he said. “Without manpower, this just doesn't happen.  “Even though I had heard about adaptive sports, it's tough to actually think about them when your world is being turned upside down,” said Bardell.  “I have played sports all my life, and the thought of not being able to play again was crushing.”

Above story reprinted from The Boston Globe.
For original story see February 12, 2016 Boston Globe.
Brion O'Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.