The following is an expanded version of a story that will appear in the January 2016 edition of USA Hockey Magazine.
ESCONDIDO, CA — Although dark clouds and rain created a dreary atmosphere outside, nothing could put a damper on the energy and spirit inside Ice-Plex in Escondido, California, where the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, with support from USA Hockey, held the So Cal Warrior Sled Hockey Learn To Play Clinic on November 15.
At the clinic, current players from the Kings and Ducks sled hockey teams, along with their coaches and other volunteers, helped active duty military, veterans and non-military learn to play sled hockey, teaching them the fundamentals of the game.
“Based on what we’re trying to do, in terms of growing the sport of hockey, and providing something for veterans and active duty military members who have given so much for our country, we decided it was best to bring in, not only the Ducks, but USA Hockey, and really get a team effort behind this event,” said Chris Crotty, Director of Hockey Development for the Kings.
With only 35 miles between them, the Kings and Ducks compete on the ice, but also for much of the same territory, in terms of building a fan base. But on this day, none of that mattered.
“We don’t partner on many things, but for this, you throw out any competition,” said Champ Baginski, Fan Development Manager for the Ducks. “You just want to help in any way you can because it’s such a great cause.”
“The rivalry between the Kings and Ducks is one of the best in the nation and we love it,” Crotty noted. “The Southern California hockey community feeds off of that, but putting something together for our active duty military members and our veterans rises above all that. It makes [the rivalry] look kind of petty, to a degree. This is us stepping up, working together to make this happen, because it’s doing so many great things.”
“We’re providing a free event for people who put their lives on the line for this country, and we’re growing the sport,” Crotty added. “Hopefully, we’ll get people out there and they’ll fall in love with sled hockey. That’s what we want. We’re introducing it to people and getting them excited about something they can do.”
Both Crotty and Baginski pointed out that sponsoring this clinic was a no-brainer.
“The military presence in Southern California is huge,” Crotty observed. “It’s got a huge footprint here with all the bases, the Veterans Administration hospitals, and the military organizations, so it’s a no-brainer. Frankly, it’s something we should’ve been working on a lot longer. But this is a start. We’re hoping to make this an [annual] thing, and go from there.”
“A lot of people think that we’re just focusing on youth hockey, but that’s just not the case,” said Baginski. “We’re focused on all areas, and all age groups. We’re indebted to our military for everything they’ve done. Let’s face it. Without our military, we don’t even exist, so this is just a small token of what we can do to give back to them, and say thank you, so when the Kings came to us with this idea, and especially since sled hockey was something we had just recently gotten into, it was a no-brainer. What a great way to build the sport even more in Southern California, an area where hockey is already growing at an historic rate.”
The Kings and Ducks also worked with Dustan Brewer, President of the USA Wounded Warrior Sled Hockey Association, a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan six times, and twice to Africa.
“[This clinic] means a great deal,” said Brewer. “As a veteran who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and from a traumatic brain injury, and everything that goes along with that, I want to help stop the epidemic of 22 veterans who kill themselves each day. That’s a huge number, so every veteran we can save, that’s a big deal.”
“Some guys won’t even leave their home, they’re in such a depressed state—suicidal, and everything else,” added Brewer. “This is the only full contact Paralympic sport, and most former military like the athletic part of that. It brings them back into a cohesive team environment, just like while they were in the military.”
Hans Blum, who was an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician in the U.S. Army, helped new players during the clinic. He was deployed three times to Iraq, and once to Afghanistan, where he lost both of his legs after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device. He was medically retired in 2014.
“I started playing with the USA Warriors about six months after [the injury],” the 34-year-old native of San Diego said. “They were big on it at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland] because their goal is to utilize hockey to help wounded warriors suffering from PTSD or stress to get better—to get them out there again, to get them going.”
“A lot of military guys get injured, and end up in situations where you’re used to an active lifestyle, going 100 miles an hour, but then you get injured, and all that goes away,” he added. “That leads to depression, PTSD, and all sorts of stuff. Just having hockey, as a means to escape—just being on the ice, you forget about everything else. It’s therapeutic, both physically and mentally.”
Blum indicated that sled hockey has worked wonders for him since his injury.
“I was used to an active lifestyle, but after my injuries, I went through great depression,” said Blum. “I was feeling sorry for myself because of my injuries. I was just sitting in my room, gaining weight, just angry at the world. But the minute I stepped onto the ice for the first time in the sled, it gave me a feeling of being at the rink all over again [as he felt playing hockey before his injuries]. It was like being at a hockey game all over again.”
For Lance Corporal E3 Dillon Kline of the U.S. Marine Corps, who also helped first-time players during the clinic, playing sled hockey is a way to escape, so to speak.
“Just knowing that I can go back out there and keep playing helps take my mind off stuff,” said Kline, a military policeman who lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident. “That’s the best part. If you have problems, find something to take your mind off of it, and sled hockey is one of those things for me.”
The 21-year-old native of Toledo, Ohio played ice hockey before his injury.
“I used to play hockey when I was growing up,” he noted. “Once I got hurt, I wasn’t really interested in the other adaptive sports. They just didn’t seem like what I was looking for.”
“I like being able to play at least somewhat how I used to,” added Kline. “You still stickhandle, you still shoot, you still check. It’s fun, and it’s a way to adapt to injuries in the best way possible. It’s fun to get back out there and be competitive.”
Sarah Bettencourt, 32, another experienced player, started the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey Club in 2014. She also helped the first-timers during the clinic.
The native of Laurel, Maryland was training to be a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot when she was stricken with a rare form of encephalopathy that can cause paralysis, blindness, deafness, loss of coordination and sensation, or a plethora of other serious issues, some permanent, others temporary. She was medically retired in 2012.
“When I was medically retired, I felt like I lost everything,” she said. “Being in the Marine Corps, you’re serving your country. Everything you do is to benefit this country. That’s a lot of weight to carry. But when you’re medically retired? You go from everything to nothing.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” she added. “I was sitting at home, wondering what I was going to do. Sled hockey saved my life. I was becoming depressed and lazy. I didn’t know how to get out of the house, be independent. I didn’t know how to do anything. Now I’m meeting others who are disabled, and we teach each other.”
“It gave me my life back. I get to help other people the way others helped me, so I’m still serving, just in a different way, and that’s what a lot of our military members want. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and we’re giving them something to be a part of. Come be a part of a team again. Get physical on the ice, give when you’re off the ice, serve other people—it’s amazing.”
The clinic, which drew 26 participants, was deemed a huge success.
“The biggest thing was seeing the smiles,” said Brewer. “One individual had never been on the ice before, never skated a day in his life, but he fell in love with it and he’s going to continue with the sport. I also talked to a couple of others and they’re very interested in continuing.”
Jose Estrada, 29, of South San Diego, had never played sled hockey before, but now hopes to continue, even though he’ll need a little prodding.
“I play wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, but it was nothing like that at all,” said Estrada, who was paralyzed from waist down at age 12. “It’s crazy. When you’re on the ice, you have to keep your balance on the sled because it’s really sensitive. I did one push, and I fell. I didn’t think [the sled would be] so sensitive. But [shooting], balancing with your sticks while you’re trying to maneuver—it was challenging, but once you get it, it’s a lot of fun. I hope to get to try it again.”
“You’re thinking, ‘wow. Can I really get to that level?’ It’s crazy,” added Estrada. “It’s a challenge, but you see others doing it, so if they can do it, you can, too. Out there, everyone’s disabled. They’re in the same situation you are. It just takes practice. Practice makes perfect.”
“I definitely want to practice to see if I can get better, and if someone says that I should consider joining the team, maybe something could happen there. I’d play three sports. It’s something I’d like to continue. I never thought about playing sled hockey before, but I’m glad I did [today].”
That’s exactly what organizers hoped for.
“It’s really great and awesome that a kid, or an adult, who has a disability can get in a sled and play hockey, just like anybody else,” said Nancy Hodge, Pacific District Associate Registrar and California Sled Hockey Representative, USA Hockey. “USA Hockey’s goal for promoting any hockey is the more the merrier. The more people we get involved—it’s a great game, it’s a great sport, and we just want to grow the game. With something like this, if you start when you’re eight or nine years old, you’re going to play for the rest of your life. Once you have hockey in your blood, it becomes a life-long passion. We just want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy it.”
“We hope to be able to recruit some new athletes for the Ducks and the Kings programs,” said Todd Jenkins, a driving force in the Southern California sled hockey community for years, and one of the key organizers of the clinic. “But mostly, we want people to know that this is an option and that there are places they can go to for this kind of therapeutic recreation.”
“We want to continue to expand the sport,” Jenkins added. “We want people to learn that this is something they can do, that they can benefit from, and share with others. This sounds like a cliché, but this sport changes lives.”
As noted earlier, the above is an expanded version of a story I wrote for USA Hockey Magazine, which is scheduled to appear in their January 2016 edition. However, what didn’t make the cut was so amazing and inspiring that it would be almost criminal not to share it.
Indeed, the rest of Sarah Bettencourt’s story regarding what sled hockey has done for her is something very, very special.
To be sure, sled hockey took her life into a 180-degree turn.
“I was medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2012, and I had no idea what adaptive sports were,” said Bettencourt. “I didn’t know what sled hockey was. I thought that I would never be able to play sports again, because of all the stuff that happened to me—not being able to walk, and all that good stuff. But then I found out about a skiing event, and I asked if I could go, to watch. I didn’t think I could ski. I just wanted to be in the snow. They said, ‘we’ll figure out a way for you to ski.’ I told them, ‘you don’t understand. I can’t ski. I can’t walk.’ They said, ‘we’ll make it happen.’”
“Sure enough, there’s a thing called Mono-Skiing, an adaptive version of skiing, and I went skiing again,” added Bettencourt. “I was super happy about that, and at that ski camp, they had sled hockey. That’s how I learned about sled hockey. I got into a sled, and I got out onto the ice.”
Bettencourt played hockey before she was stricken with her rare form of encephalopathy, and getting back on the ice was an amazing, transformative experience for her.
“When I was on the ice, I was no longer disabled,” she exclaimed. “I was a hockey player again! Instead of skating with my feet, I skated with blades under my butt. I had two sticks instead of one, but I still checked the crap out of all those guys, and I was still playing with the puck and shooting on net, and it was amazing!”
Not long after her first experience with sled hockey, Bettencourt returned to her current home in San Diego.
“I then came back to San Diego, trying to find sled hockey,” she noted. “There wasn’t any sled hockey around here [San Diego], so I started the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey Club in 2014—we’re sponsored by the Anaheim Ducks.”
Since then, she has been all about providing opportunities for others to play sled hockey, and for reasons beyond the recreational or competitive aspects of the game.
“I just wanted to teach others that you can overcome your disability,” she emphasized. “You can overcome your challenges, and everyone has challenges. Mine happen to be physical. Someone else might be struggling with money. Someone might be struggling with their home life, or their job. What we do is use hockey as a tool to overcome those challenges, whether it’s on the ice or off, and become a productive member of society. That’s what we’re all about. We help people to do things, and to accomplish their goals.”
As for the therapeutic benefits of sled hockey, Bettencourt pointed proudly to some of the outcomes she has seen.
“We have several players on our team who have cut their medications in half, whether its pain medication or medications for [depression, anxiety, or stress],” she said. “We have players learning independence, and instead of having their parents doing everything for them, including pushing them in their wheelchairs, they’re pushing themselves now. They’re packing their own [equipment] bags. They’re taking public transportation. They’re learning how to drive. We have players who are accepting their disabilities instead of beating themselves up. They’re becoming a part of their communities again.”
“We’re doing more than just teaching them how to play hockey. We’re teaching them how to get their lives back, and how to go back out and do things with the rest of the world.”
LEAD PHOTO: One of the younger participants at the So Cal Warrior Sled Hockey Learn To Play Clinic, sponsored by the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, on November 15, 2015, at Ice-Plex in Escondido, California. Photo: Dustan Brewer.
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