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Sledge hockey expands its audience

When Josh Sweeney was preparing for the Sochi Paralympics, he tried to explain sledge hockey to friends and acquaintances who just couldn’t quite grasp what he was doing.

“Do you play hockey in wheelchairs?” they asked.

Sweeney patiently explained the sport he fell in love with, the sport he excelled at and the opportunity he had to help Team USA to its second straight Paralympic gold medal.

Upon his return from Sochi, gold medal in hand, the interactions were different.

“When I came home, people said they saw the game on TV at home or watched it a restaurant,” Sweeney said. “I still have people saying they saw the game here. I’ve had guys hit me up saying, ‘I saw you play. How do you play? Can I get involved?’ Media attention has been huge.”

More attention has helped grow the sport in the United States and the live broadcast of the gold medal game from Sochi in 2014 along with the PBS documentary “Ice Warriors” helped increase awareness. (The sport is usually referred to as sled hockey in the U.S., and sledge hockey internationally.)

Anecdotally, there are more opportunities for people to play sled hockey. Steve Cash, the self-described “gray beard” of Team USA at age 25, has noticed an increase in the number of club teams during his 10-year tenure with the national team.

“When I first started, I would say there were probably two divisions … but now this past year we had 72 sled teams between all the divisions,” Cash said. “From 2005 to now you’ve seen tremendous growth within the United States.”

While media coverage has helped increase awareness of the sport, Cash also credits the work of USA Hockey, which took over governance of the national sled hockey program in 2006 from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

USA Hockey has helped growth with its hockey-specific knowledge and its ability to fund a sled-lending program so that Paralympic clubs can offer the sport in a cost-effective way.

“Specifically to have a sled-lending program that allows different Paralympic sport clubs throughout the country to bring in sleds, put on a demo and allow people to come out and try the sport out is huge,” Cash said. “I think the fact that people get out on sleds and try it, they really fall in love with it, sometimes that’s all it takes. You never know how many disabled athletes are out there until you get the word out and people actually know about it. … I give them credit for what they’ve done and to the individual Paralympic sport clubs, the people who work to get these athletes out there and actually groom them to become athletes and hockey players. They definitely deserve a lot of credit as well.”

When Adam Page, who was born with spina bifida, was growing up in Lancaster, he tried several adaptive sports. Then he tried sled hockey and he fell in love.

Page plays for the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey team, an organization that also has seen growth in the sport.

“I just loved it because it’s true to the real thing,” Page said about sled hockey. “I started doing it locally when I was around 6 and even just locally since I started, the program here in Buffalo has really grown. … Under our organization we have five teams going from little kids in a junior program to the level I play at, which is seniors.”

As opportunity increases, so does the level of competition and the pool of athletes. The national camp tryouts get more competitive each year, and the World Championship and Paralympic levels help push the development of the sport. Sled hockey isn’t just a collection of feel-good stories. It has become a layered sport with elite and recreational levels.

“People who watch the sport, whether it be sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, what have you, they actually see it as a sport now as opposed to a feel-good thing,” Cash said. “I think in that sense it’s definitely come a long way.

“With more athletes coming up and the talent getting better, it helps the sport grow. Obviously if you have a game out there with a bunch of beginners who are first trying sled hockey, it does become more of a feel-good moment, guys just giving it an effort as opposed to competing against each other.

“I think now that the sport’s evolved into something where year after year we’re competing for a championship, you see more people grabbing on to the sport and seeing it as a competitive sport rather than recreational one. … It does have its tiers where you do have people who just want to play recreationally but I think for a sport to be good and be considered a sport you have to have that competitive edge to it as well. I think sled hockey has taken that on and it’s helped us grow.”