Reminder Assistant Editor
WESTFIELD Every four years, able-bodied hockey players from around the world gather to compete for the coveted gold, silver and bronze at the Winter Olympic Games.
What is little known, however, is that those unable to skate on their own two feet have also sought glory every four years since the establishment of sled (or sledge) hockey as a sport at the Paralympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994.
From April 18 - 20, Paralympic athletes from the United States National Team, Canada and other adult and junior sled hockey players will compete for the title in the 10th Annual New England Invitational Sled Hockey Tournament at Amelia Park Ice Arena.
Tournament Director Dale Wise explained that despite popular misconceptions about sled hockey player's physical limitations, the sport has the same high intensity, speed and athleticism as a National Hockey League (N.H.L.) game.
"People are amazed when they see sled hockey for the first time," he said. "Most come out of curiosity, expecting to see some poor paraplegics pushing around the ice. When they see the players zipping around the ice, slamming each other into the boards and shooting the puck at 60 and 70 mph they can't believe their eyes."
The game of sled hockey, developed during the 1960s in Sweden as a means of physical rehabilitation, has transformed into one of the most popular games at the Paralympic Games. Standard ice hockey rules apply, with the exception that players are strapped to a sled and use sticks that have a curved blade on one end and picks on the other for movement and momentum.
Wise noted that 13 past and present members of the United States Paralympic Team will be playing in the tournament that will be comprised of four adult teams the Pennsylvania Center-Pedes, the Buffalo Sabres, the Ontario Kings and the New England Bruins and six junior teams the Virtua Wings of Steel, the Bennett Blazers, the MHS Chariotts, the Vineland Sled Stars, the Niagara Junior Sabres and the Springfield Sliders.
"What I really like about sled hockey is it is the most inclusive sport around," Wise said. "We do not discriminate against anyone. Teams will have men, women, paraplegics, amputees, people who are able-body and people who have a disability all playing together."
Wise's love for the sport of ice hockey spawned as both an able-bodied player and amputee. He explained that he was forced to stop playing ice hockey in 1978 when he was diagnosed with cancer in his left tibia. After losing his leg in 1993 due to an infection in the same knee, he picked up sled hockey.
Carole Appleton, of the Springfield Falcons and assistant coach of the Springfield Sliders, said, as the host team, her players are committed, eager and ready to compete later this month.
She explained that she is constantly amazed at their on-ice abilities despite their physical limitations. Appleton said the sport allows her players to grow not only as athletes but as a means for social development as well. "It's opened up so many doors for these kids," she added.
Wise explained that since moving the tournament to the Amelia Park Ice Arena in 2003, the tournament has had greater success in attracting fans, sponsors and players. He noted that the tournament committee raises money to pay for the ice time, coordinates volunteers, referees, timers and scorekeepers.
John McCormack, manager of the Amelia Park Ice Arena, noted that despite increasing levels of success, spectator turnout has been low, totaling approximately 150 people the arena has a capacity of 1,062.
"Every athlete, whether they're a pee-wee hockey player, an amateur player or a professional enjoy having a crowd to play for," Wise said. "They seem to feed off the enthusiasm and excitement of a cheering crowd to play before."
Wise noted that this year fans will have the opportunity to meet with the players at the Westfield Police Association's Ice Cream Social on April 18 from 6 - 7:30 p.m.; the Friendly's barbeque on April 19 from 12:30 - 2 p.m.; and at the group lunch on April 20 from noon - 2 p.m.
Admission to the tournament is free. Games are scheduled from 7 a.m. - 11:30 p.m. on April 18 - 19 and from 7 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. on April 20.
For more information about the 10th Annual New England Sled Hockey Invitational Tournament call the Amelia Park Ice Arena at 568-2503.