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Sugar House Journal

Freedom, fun and equality through Paralympic sled hockey classes

Aug 01, 2018 12h10 ● By Jana Klopsch

Missy Cowley shows off her upper body strength during sled hockey class. (Lawrence Linford/City Journals)

By Lawrence Linford | [email protected]

“I tell everybody this is the most fun I’ve had since I lost my leg about 35 years ago,” said Bill Eskridge after finishing a sled hockey class and scrimmage at the Salt Lake County Sports Complex on June 28.

In January, the sports complex began sled (or sledge) hockey classes. The Paralympic sport is a version of hockey designed for people with lower-body mobility impairments.

It follows most of traditional ice hockey’s rules, and much of the equipment like the puck and goals are the same. The primary differences are players sit in a specially designed sled and use two short and slightly modified hockey sticks. At the butt of each stick are metal picks for movement; at the other end is the traditional hockey blade used to control the puck.

“Off the ice I have a disability,” said Jhon Bryan, the sled hockey class instructor. “But on the ice we’re all equal, we don’t have a disability.”

“It makes me feel free,” said Bryan.

Eskridge, a former army captain wounded in Grenada, and his wife Debbie Eskridge, a retired naval lieutenant commander and fellow player, made their usual four-hour drive to class from Rexburg, Idaho. “There’s just no ice near us,” said Debbie.

Missy Cowley started sled hockey at age 5, and now at 12 was returning to the ice, after a year recovering from back surgery. “She loves it,” said her mom Cindy Cowley, sitting in the stands and taking pictures of her daughter on the ice.

With Missy came three friends: Austin Burr, Maddux Hale and Josh Sizelove (all also 12 years old and eager to play). Friends, family and anyone else interested, are encouraged to play because sled hockey’s design equalizes abilities for those with or without lower-body mobility impairments.

After all seven players were on the ice, they formed a small circle as Bryan explained the rules. Soon after some experimentation, the seven players broke into two teams and scrimmaged. (For a short video of the scrimmage visit the Sugar House Facebook page.)

An infectious combination of crackling competitive energy, camaraderie, and combative and collaborative shouts filled the air, as players drove their picks hard into the ice to chase that elusive puck.

“It was so much fun!” said Missy, with joy and a dash of moxie, after class.

“It’s challenging too,” said Bill. “It’s a lot of upper body and core strength trying to stay up, especially when you’re scrimmaging.”

“It was hard to get up, especially because this guy kept on pushing me over,” said Sizelove pointing to Hale. “And this guy, too,” he said motioning to Burr. Sizelove and Hale were trying sled hockey for the first time. All the preteens wanted to do it again.

Sled hockey was invented in Sweden in the early 1960s and made its Paralympic debut in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994. The US sled hockey team has dominated the sport winning the last three Paralympics including outlasting the Canadians 2-1 in Pyongyang in 2018.

“Salt Lake County is a Paralympic Sport Club,” said Susie Schroer, Adaptive Recreation manager with Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. “Which means we’re the grassroots beginning of getting people with disabilities involved with Paralympic sports.”

“Back in 2006, when sled hockey was in its prime time days in Utah,” said Schroer, “we were the best in the nation.” Utah’s team was the “Golden Eagles.” Bryan played for the Eagles and was on the USA Sled Hockey Junior Development Team. But, over time people moved away and the Eagles eventually disbanded.

Salt Lake County Adaptive Recreation stepped in to run a sled hockey program. “The growth has been up and down since we’ve taken it over,” said Schroer. “But this past year since we partnered with the VA Medical Center and their recreational, occupational and physical therapy staff the program has really thrived.”

“Vets can come for services at the VA, then go through the parking lot and play sled hockey,” said Schroer.

“It’s good physical exercise and encourages them to work harder in OT and PT as well,” said Schroer. “And then there’s the social aspect of being out here with a lot of other veterans that have injuries.”

SLCO Adaptive Recreation plans to form a sled hockey team with USA Hockey in the fall and host a tournament in Salt Lake County in the winter. There are teams in California, Colorado, Missouri and elsewhere.

The county also offers other adaptive recreation such as wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, archery and more. For more information call 385-468-1515.

Salt Lake County Sports Complex is at 645 South Guardsman Way in Salt Lake City. Sled hockey classes are $6 if you bring your own equipment and $8 if you use the facility’s equipment. Classes are every other Thursday from 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m. The next dates are August 9 and 23. It’s recommended you show up at 10:30 a.m. to change into the gear. Classes will continue through the rest of the year, but likely at different times after August. All equipment can be provided.