Mike Eberhard remembers the day he knew his daughter would be just fine on the ice.
Maddie was just 13 years old and playing on a coed sled hockey team. The tournament in Canada was against competition just below the national level. These were men she was going up against and Mike had his doubts.
“I remember first shift watching the game and I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to let my daughter on the ice with these guys.’ They were hitting very hard,” Mike said. “She went out there and she actually hit one of the guys on the Canadian team that was a full-grown adult right off his sled. ‘Well, I guess I’ll just let her run with it.’ ”
And run with it Maddie has. Heading into eighth grade at St. Christopher’s in Town of Tonawanda, Eberhard is the youngest player to make the USA Women’s National Sled Hockey Team.
The Getzville resident went to tryouts two weeks ago in Maine, spending three days on the ice with both veteran and aspiring national team players.
“It was really fun,” Maddie said. “At other camps I had met some of the other players and had talked with some of the national team players so some of them knew me already. I never was on a team with all girls. I’m used to being the only girl on the team, so this was really nice.”
Maddie plays with the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey program. Born with Larsen syndrome, which primarily resulted in dislocations of the joints in her lower body, she started playing five years ago.
Mike was participating in a 24 hours of hockey fundraiser for juvenile diabetes when some of the Sabres sled hockey players gave a demonstration on the ice. One of the players had his gold medal from the Vancouver Paralympics and showed Maddie. She wanted to try the sport.
And then she was hooked.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said Maddie when asked what about sled hockey she fell in love with. “Both my brother and dad played hockey when I was younger and I watched them always want to play hockey. I tried standing up on skates and I could but I was never able to play hockey. Now I can be on the ice with them.”
Women’s sled hockey is still new on the international scene, though it’s grown quickly. Not officially a sanctioned national team by USA Hockey, the organization still is affiliated with the national governing body.
The women played in their first International Paralympic Committee-sanctioned tournament last year and are hoping sled hockey becomes an official demonstration sport in the 2018 Games with an eye toward full inclusion in IPC events.
Currently the only international teams belong to the U.S., Canada and a combined European team, with work on creating a team in Japan.
An IPC blessing is one sign of growth. Another lies in participation numbers.
“Our first event was in 2007 and we had five or six players,” team manager Lori Kile said. “The first five years or so if you were a female and played the sport you named the team, we were so low on numbers. Starting maybe four years ago we had to have tryouts and cut people. The sport is growing.”
The team meets once a month and begins its season Sept. 11 with a game against the Philadelphia Flyers Sled Hockey team.
“Four years ago Maddie could barely even skate, couldn’t really shoot the puck,” Mike said. “From the time she was born I never in a million years thought she’d do anything associated with hockey. Finding sled hockey has been enormous for her.”