Most of the time Maddy Eberhard plays sled hockey with the guys. It's the nature of the sport at the club level and Eberhard has gained a team-full of older brotehrs. But when she gets to play for Team USA on an all-women's squad, well, that's something special, something she cherishes.
"It’s completely different, the conversations that you have," Eberhard said. " It’s like having a whole team of sisters. Being on an all-guys team is like you have all these older brothers to look up to but being on an all-girls team is so different. Just being in the locker room with everyone looking around and thinking 'this is a family' is really cool."
Last year at this time, Eberhard was in Maine. At 13 she became the youngest player to make the U.S. Women's Sled Hockey team. With a year of experience under her belt, she's become a veteran even as she prepares for her freshman year of high school at Sacred Heart. Eberhard was one of 39 women participating in the U.S. Women's Sled Hockey Development Camp at HarborCenter this past weekend. For three days players from across country, ranging in age fro 13 to 65, skated in Buffalo to work on their own hockey skills and compete for spots on the Team USA roster.
"Coming to camp and seeing all the new girls, it helps me because you’re helping them," Eberhard said. "It's funny because I’m so much younger than everyone but a lot of people come up to me and ask me questions. It’s weird because last year I was doing the same thing."
But age doesn't matter as much when it comes to sled hockey.
"In able-body hockey, you're not going to have a 13 or 14 year old playing with your senior national team so to speak," said U.S. coach Shawna Davidson. "They’re not going to be out on the ice with the Meghan Duggans of the world or the Hillary Knights. Generally you won't have 13 or 14 year-olds out with mid-20 year-olds. But in sled hockey, they’re almost all on an even playing field to begin with. Then it’s a matter of the skill set, working on speed and game concepts, helping them become better students of the game."
The U.S. Women's Sled Team was founded in 2007 but this is the first year of its development camp. In some ways, it's merely a rebranding of the yearly national team tryouts, but an important change in order to draw more women and help deepen and expand the talent pool. At the club level, women play on co-ed teams, although in practice it usually is a primarily male team. Davidson said women sled hockey players seek others out at tournaments and festivals to talk up the national team program. They'll go out and recruit other female athletes to take up the sport and encourage them to attend the few national team sponsored events not just to tryout but to improve their own skills and be part of a women's team.
"That’s the big part of it, that sisterhood,," Davidson said. "The team concept is very special but that adds another layer to it. Sometimes on those teams back home maybe they don’t get a lot of ice time. They may not always be their strongest player so you’re hoping that those coaches they’re playing for give them ice time and opportunities. But for them to be here and have it be all women, it’s very empowering I feel for them to get that opportunity to look around and be like, look at this, this is all us, this is women female athletes, super strong, super excited about it."
While there are still inroads to make in the United States and Canada in regards to female athletes and disabled athletes, the opportunities are better than in other countries. Which is what has held back women's sled hockey from being included in the Paralympic program. The goal is to have six countries sponsor a women's sled team to qualify it as a medal sport int he 2020 Paralympics.
"We continue to get fabulous support from USA Hockey," Davidson said. "We’re just not fully funded yet because we need to become a Paralympic sport and that’s getting those other countries to offer it for their female athletes. We’re fortunate here in the United States with how the female athlete is treated along with athletes with disabilities. Same thing with Hockey Canada and the Canadian sled team on the women’s side. Sometimes those other countries, they don’t treat their female athletes very well and now you’re a disabled female athlete, it’s kind of like good luck.
The American athletes "don’t take anything for granted and that’s what’s so humbling but at the same time we forget that we are very lucky with some of the ways the disabled are treated in regards to athletics in the United States."
Team USA will hold a training camp in New Jersey in September then travel to Norway in October for a tournament with a women's Team Europe and Team Canada. They will play men's teams in Tampa n December and Connecticut in January.