Sled Hockey Thrives At Space Coast Iceplex
By Maria Sonnenberg // May 27, 2014
ABOVE VIDEO: Greg Shaw was born with sacral agenesis, a rare congenital conditional that deforms the spine. The disability hasn’t slowed Shaw any, for the Merritt Island resident helped the U.S. Paralympics Sled Hockey Team take the Gold medal during the games in the Paralympics in Sochi this year. In the above video, Shaw talks about what it takes to prepare for the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, where his team also won Gold.
Disabilities Don’t Slow Dedicated Players Who Enjoy Fast-Paced, Physical Game
BREVARD COUNTY • VIERA, FLORIDA – Tom Reinarts grew up living and breathing hockey in Minnesota.
“There wasn’t much else to do than to play hockey,” said the now Merritt Island resident.
Reinarts wanted son Nicholas to enjoy the benefits of the sport, which encourages team spirit, self-confidence and competitiveness.
“I always wanted to get him involved in hockey,” said Reinarts.
There were two rather large problems with realizing Reinarts’ wish, however. For one, Nicholas suffers from spina bifida, a birth defect that robs many children of the ability to use their legs.
“He has good upper body strength, but he can’t walk,” said Reinarts.
Nicholas was a perfect candidate for sled hockey, an ice sport that allows persons with disabilities to play a game very similar to “stand-up hockey” in concept and action, including 60-mile-an-hour slap shots, hard checking and elevated puck shooting.
Sled hockey is based on an adaptive device known as a sled, which is basically two skate blades and a runner in the front to form a tripod. Players use two shortened hockey sticks with a blade on one end a pick on the other to propel themselves across the ice.
“It’s very difficult,” said Reinarts. “You need good body strength.”
The general public is familiar with wheelchair sports, such as basketball and track and field, but sled hockey is another story. Even though the game was developed in the 1960’s in Sweden and migrated to the United States in the 1990’s, becoming an official Paralympics sport in the winter games of 1994, many people still don’t know anything about it.
Sled hockey teams are few and far between, particularly in the Southeastern United States, so Nicholas and his dad had another obstacle to surmount before hitting the ice. There was no sled hockey team in Brevard.
For a couple of years, father and son made do by traveling to Tampa every other week to play in the sled hockey team hosted by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It got very tiring very quickly,” said Reinarts.
Friends started telling the NASA engineer that he should consider starting his own team here. As the parent of a disabled child, Reinarts knew the local programs for the disabled, as well as a lot of disabled students.
AMONG TOP TEAMS IN NATION
Although many of the folks he initially approached had never heard of sled hockey, they were nevertheless enthusiastic about the opportunities the sport could provide for players with disabilities.
Rick Ninko, owner of the Space Coast IcePlex in Rockledge, was very supportive and contacted Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida and Tim’s Kids, a program established by the late Tim Szymula to introduce children to hockey. Tim’s Kids took the fledgling sled hockey program under its wing.
“We thought we’d give it a shot and started with a clinic,” said Reinarts. “It turned into a regular season with regular practice. We’ve come a long way.”
A long way, indeed. With Reinarts’ efforts and those of his friends, Brevard now boasts the Space Coast Hurricanes sled hockey team, a group that, as rapid as a hockey puck ripping into the net, has become one of the top teams in the nation. Almost miraculously, a team that didn’t even exist until 2008 is now ranked among the Top Four in the country.
“We’ve taken the rest of the country by surprise,” said Reinarts.
From September to March, the team plays once a week at the IcePlex, plus travels to games across the state. The 20-player Hurricanes have also competed – and done well – against teams from large metropolitan areas, such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC, among many others.
About a dozen of the higher level players have participated in the National USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Massachusetts. The Hurricanes’ A Team won the Open A Tournament at the Disabled Hockey Festival in Philadelphia.
GREG SHAW: OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST
The team’s top player, Greg Shaw, was born with sacral agenesis, a rare congenital conditional that deforms the spine.
The disability hasn’t slowed Shaw any, for the Merritt Island resident helped the U.S. Paralympics Sled Hockey Team take the gold medal during the games in the Paralympics in Sochi this year.
Shaw also took part in the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, where his team went home with Gold.
Reinarts fully expects another player, Chris Douglas, to make the Nationals next year.
The reasons for the players’ disabilities are varied, but, ultimately irrelevant. A few of the adult Hurricanes lost their ability to use their legs due to a car or motorcycle accident. Other players suffer from cerebral palsy or birth defects that left them with undersized limbs. One of the Hurricanes is a wounded warrior.
It doesn’t matter what life threw at them, because they are all too busy getting that puck into the goal.
From Reinarts’ adult hockey league at the IcePlex, John and Steve Guerro, Casey Chizek, Brad Cervi and Lee Hathaway have come forth to help the sled team. One able-bodied woman, Amanda Marcori, plays with the team.
The wide age span among the Hurricanes makes for an extremely interesting group with an abundance of heart. The youngest players are eight or so, while the oldest are well into senior citizenship. Despite the age differences, or maybe because of them, they pull together as a truest of teams, the older players mentoring the younger ones for the benefit of the unit.
“I have players through the whole age and ability spectrum,” said Reinarts.
“They help each other beyond the rink, too. They help each other get jobs and work through issues. It’s neat to see how they all look out for each other.”