- Bruce Elliott
America's national sled hockey team slid into town this month en route to an international tournament in Germany.
Sled hockey, a 40-year-old sport first developed in Scandinavia, allows disabled persons to face off, body check and break away as effectively as able-bodied players.
Strapped into metal sleds -- see player Alex Salamone, aka "The Bullet," above in action -- players use metal picks at the base of their miniature hockey sticks to propel themselves. As fast paced and competitive as able-bodied hockey, the sport's popularity has surged in recent years. America's national team won the Paralympic gold during the Salt Lake Games in 2002.
Goalie Scott Brandon calls sled hockey the "silver lining" to his paralyzing injury. When the avid hockey player damaged his spine by falling from a ladder two years ago, it only took three weeks before he was back out on the ice -- this time in a sled. "As bad as the injury was," said Brandon, who is paralyzed from the chest down, "[before] I wasn't playing for the national team for the gold."
The team's biggest goal, said Head Coach Keith Blase, is to defend their Paralympic gold at the 2006 games in Torino, Italy. "It's tremendously exciting," he said, "being around these athletes who have overcome so many physical challenges."
"It's an amputee-driven sport," said Brandon, who says he's the highest-ranking player with spinal damage. The players' bodies are seated in a variety of configurations. Some goalies sit forward like a Buddha and others sit upright or sideways in the net. Most players with disabilities possess enormous upper body strength, enough so that able-bodied players who try sled hockey for the first time usually get whipped.
-- by Dan Wilcock
photo by Bruce Elliott