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Gearing up to play sled hockey

(Hilary Higgins/RedEye )
March 06, 2013|By Matt Lindner, @mattlindner | RedEye

In sled hockey, the sled itself serves as sort of a great equalizer regardless of whether or not you have a disability.

"Once (an able-bodied person) gets into a sled and they get strapped in, it's a totally different world for them," said RIC Blackhawks player Erica Mitchell, a 25-year-old Belmont Center resident who has been disabled since birth.

"The big difference is being able to move in that sled," said Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Blackhawks assistant coach Derek Daniels. "Doesn't matter what your disability is, as long as you can push around on the ice, you're part of the game."

The sleds, which cost around $600 to 700, feature a bucket for players to sit in. Players with legs have them strapped directly in front of them to the metal frame of the sled.

Underneath the bucket is a pair of skate blades about the size of an average ice skate.

"If you have sharp blades, you'll be fine," Mitchell said. "Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy. You just kind of go with it."

Daniels, himself an able-bodied person, said having the proper distance between the two blades is key.

"The width is based upon each player's balance and skating ability," he said. "The further apart, the less balance somebody might have. If you start to lean to the side, you'll tip right over."

Chuck Wyder, a 38-year-old River North resident who lost both his legs in a car accident nearly 15 years ago, learned the hard way during his first time on the ice.

"It just takes a little bit of getting used to," he said. "My first time out, I kind of slipped. You fall over. With enough time on the ice you kind of get it, you find your balance and you can only go up. "

Getting going is another story in and of itself.

"You'll have two sticks that look like novelty size," Daniels said "There's a metal pick on the end. You jab the metal picks into the ice to propel yourself around the ice. The better players, once they get their momentum going, they actually can move the sled just with their abs as they're handling the puck."

Longtime sled hockey players say the emphasis on upper-body strength gives them an advantage when they're playing against an able-bodied person.

"In the areas that we use our muscles, I'm a lot stronger because I use a (wheel)chair every day," said Kevin McKee, a 23-year-old Albany Park resident who plays for both the RIC Blackhawks and the USA national sled hockey team. "My shoulders and my back and everything are a lot stronger than them."

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