Their smiles were tentative at first, a reasonable reaction from the brave souls who had never before been strapped into a small sled and shown how to propel themselves around the ice using short hockey sticks equipped with a sharp pick at one end and a flat blade at the other.
A few mishaps occurred, but it wasn’t long before joyful chaos reigned among the armada of about 50 sleds that darted around Rink 1 at Great Park Ice in Irvine last weekend at the Ducks’ try-it sled hockey clinic.
Longtime sled hockey players, including many who participated in an exhibition tournament featuring adult teams backed by the Ducks, Kings and Vegas Golden Knights helped the newcomers adjust to their surroundings and the sensation of speed.
Participants ranged from 7 years old to 50-somethings and their skill levels varied, but their enthusiasm overcame their chilled hands. In a sled they were all athletes and all part of a family — the hockey family, which welcomed them with open arms, sleek sleds and the promise of new adventures.
Sled hockey — sometimes called sledge hockey — gave a new purpose to Ralph DeQuebec, a Purple Heart recipient who lost his legs above the knee in June 2012 while serving as a Marine bomb technician in Afghanistan.
He learned about sled hockey while he was healing from some of his dozens of surgeries, and he joined a program in Washington. He immediately loved the contact but soon became intrigued by the game’s strategy and became a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 2018 Paralympic Games.
“I had a bad day at the office and turned it into something good,” he said.
DeQuebec, a former San Pedro resident who now lives in Denver, returned to Southern California to share his expertise during the tryout event on Saturday and a clinic on Sunday. He was easy to spot with his dark mustache, muscular shoulders and sled decorated with American flags.
“Every time I come out, these events get bigger and bigger and bigger, and my heart just fills up every time I come out here and this ice is packed,” said DeQuebec, 36, who played baseball, basketball and football and ran track at San Pedro High.
“I expected 20 people, maybe, and I saw all these kids and got butterflies in my stomach because I remember the first time I was on the ice, how I was scared and intimidated, but it eventually took me somewhere. If I could give that back to the kids, why wouldn’t I?”
The try-it sled hockey clinic and a Warrior Hockey try-it clinic for injured and disabled former military members were the first of several events the Ducks plan to hold in order to measure the interest in establishing sled and Warrior programs. They already support youth and adult sled hockey teams in San Diego, home of their American Hockey League affiliate.
The programs in Irvine would be for boys and girls and would mix adult and youth players until they get enough participants to create age-specific groups. Information will be available at www.anaheimducks.com/sledhockey and www.anaheimduckscom/warriorhockey.
The Kings help fund a six-year-old sled hockey program in Riverside whose teams travel to tournaments and host a tournament each year.
Providing a way for kids and adults to gain confidence is a win that doesn’t show up in the NHL standings.
“Programs like this are really refreshing because it gets back to the basics of what hockey’s all about: creating a sense of community while we’re out on the ice together and having fun and trying something new,” said Jesse Chatfield, director of marketing for The Rinks facilities and Great Park Ice. “It gets away from the triple-A level hockey, the competitive nature, and goes back to having fun and developing bonds and teamwork.”
The Ducks have a head start toward launching a sled hockey program: Rink 1 of their four-sheet complex was built with glide-on benches to enter and exit the ice and low glass panels so hockey players can see the ice when they’re resting.
Without a glide-on bench, players must sit on the ice and wait for line changes. Having a glide-on bench “totally legitimizes it,” DeQuebec said. “Any time you can do something like that to make the sport feel normal, I’m all for it, any time.”
Aaron Loy of Carlsbad, who lost his lower legs to bacterial meningitis during his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara, also appreciates the sled-friendly features.
“It’s great, especially for some of these younger kids,” said Loy, who has played on the U.S. national development sled hockey team. “It’s already awkward enough for them mobility-wise. For them to have these little ramps and to have really nice sleds is what makes it inclusive.”
Loy was playing club lacrosse and intramural soccer when he was stricken in 2013. Afterward, while rehabilitating, “I didn’t have a team sport, which I’d always grown up with, both helping the physical aspect and the mental aspect of playing a sport again, going fast,” said Loy, who took up sled hockey in 2015.
“This is a full-contact sport, compared to some other adaptive sports you can do, and a lot of people like that. These kids have maybe grown up in wheelchairs or other things and they are kind of sheltered a little bit and now they get to hit someone, just like everyone else who plays soccer, basketball and football.”
Warrior Hockey involves stand-up play. Mike Vaccaro, who is affiliated with USA Hockey, slowly led players through drills last weekend, letting them find their pace and maybe a refuge.
He played hockey as a kid in Buffalo but drifted away from it; the sport became a lifeline in his recovery from brain and facial injuries he suffered in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a wall in front of him.
“I found hockey again and it just turned me around,” he said. “Every team I go to, everybody I talk to, there’s always one story of somebody that was on the verge of losing it or getting divorced or just couldn’t deal with it anymore and had family issues, and hockey didn’t fix the problem, but it helped them cope with the problem. The same thing happened to me.”
And it can happen for many others, one sled or Warrior at a time.