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Sledge hockey offers second chance at participation

When Josh Sweeney tells his story, there is always the part where he’s thankful for San Antonio, Texas. Sweeney was injured by an improvised explosive device while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan. When deciding on where in the United States he would do his rehabilitation, he chose San Antonio.

While there, he found his way to watching a sled hockey game. The smell of the rink brought him back to his high school days of playing hockey in Arizona (yes, Arizona) and he wanted back in the game as a bilateral amputee.

He was watching a game of the San Antonio Rampage, a team in the Midwest Sled Hockey League.

“I remember telling my mom after I was hurt, ‘I’m not going to be able to play hockey anymore,’ ” Sweeney said. “It was upsetting. After hearing about sled hockey I had to check it out. ... As soon as I rolled into the rink, I knew I was going to be playing.

“In our locker room there’s a lot of different stories, but it’s really the exposure to the sport and the accessibility. ... The accessibility is still an issue. Because unlike regular hockey or roller hockey, you can’t be a disabled individual and go to any rink in the country and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to try sled hockey.’ You just can’t do it. I was fortunate enough to be in San Antonio, Texas, where there was already a team. If I hadn’t gone there, who knows if I would be playing today.”

Sweeney is playing and excelling, leading Team USA as its captain into the 2015 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championships, which begin Sunday at HarborCenter. The gold medal game is on May 3.

And he was part of the announcement Friday afternoon that Labatt USA would partner with USA Hockey and ESPN broadcaster John Buccigross that will increase funding, access and awareness of sled hockey across the United States.

Labatt USA, headquartered in Buffalo, has been sponsoring programs with USA Hockey for a decade. While watching the documentary “Ice Warriors” about the American’s gold medal journey at the Sochi Olympics, the company decided it wanted to get involved with sled hockey.

It could always write a check. But USA Hockey had another idea.

“We reached out to USA Hockey and said, ‘What sort of need, if any, exists in the sport of sled?’ ” Labatt brand manager Lisa Texido said. “And of course the conversation started around funding. Equipment is costly. Ice time doesn’t come cheap. So if you were to consider a donation, that’s something that would go a long way.

“But as conversations progressed, someone from USA Hockey said, ‘You know if you want to make a difference and leave a lasting imprint on this sport, what we really need is help raising awareness and providing access.’ … It’s not cheap. Even if communities have players interested, there are a lot of barriers to getting a program started.”

It costs about $25,000 to start a sled hockey program – including sticks, sleds, coaches and ice time. And USA Hockey knows there is a demand for access and affordability. They have a sled lending program, shipping out 30 sleds to various organizations for a weekend at a time. The sleds are booked for about 30 weekends a year.

“There are cities itching to get started,” said Lee Meyer, the senior director of corporate marketing for USA Hockey. “But they don’t necessarily have the wherewithal.”

The goal of this initiative is to raise $250,000 to fund the formation of 10 adult sled hockey teams. USA Hockey will administer the funds and oversee the hockey program.

Labatt will sell specialty cases in the fall of Labatt Blue and Labatt Blue Light with all proceeds going to the USA Sled Hockey initiative. The company will also produce PSAs and social media campaigns to help raise awareness of sled hockey.

And that’s where Buccigross comes in.

The sportscaster with a deep love of hockey will use his ESPN platform and social media following to spread the word about the promotional campaign and increase general knowledge of the sport.

“I’ve always talked about and written about the reasons I love hockey and the values it teaches – sacrifice, selflessness,” Buccigross said. “It’s interesting because it’s a different game, but it has all the same qualities – it’s fast, it’s fun to watch. I think for them it translates really well. Here they’re on a blade. They’re floating. They have that beautiful feeling of floating that hockey gives you. It’s seeing something you’re familiar with done differently.

“These guys want to compete. They’re ripped. They’re competitive. They’re angry. They’re nasty. For them it’s just a sport and wanting to compete. With their situations, there’s three Purple Hearts on the team, there’s a guy who got hit changing a tire and lost his legs, cancer, there’s many reasons why they lost the ability to skate, but they’re still playing hockey. It’s great you can still play hockey even if you can’t skate conventionally and ultimately, for people in a similar situation, it might increase their quality of life.”