If a player tries bringing two sticks on the ice in traditional hockey, chances are he's going to get penalized.
In sled hockey, that's not only encouraged, but those are the rules.
"You are supposed to be ambidextrous," Erica Mitchell said. "Most guys are. I'm getting there. I'm getting better at it."
Close your eyes and walk into the ice arena at McFetridge Sports Center in Irving Park on a night when the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Blackhawks sled hockey team is practicing and you'll hear all the familiar sounds of a hockey game.
Open your eyes and you'll see the players sitting in sleds with blades attached to the bottom, using two sticks instead of one, both with blades attached to the tips of the handles so they can propel themselves across the ice and help to steer their sleds.
"It's a very fast-paced sport," said 23-year-old Albany Park resident Kevin McKee. "A lot of people think it's slower, but it is very fast-paced with a lot of hitting."
"It's just like normal hockey only we're sitting down," added his teammate Mitchell, a 25-year-old Belmont Center resident.
Everyone on the RIC Blackhawks has some sort of physical disability, ranging from spinal cord disorders to missing limbs. Mitchell and McKee, who play for the women's and men's national teams respectively in addition to playing for the RIC Blackhawks, have been that way since birth and took up sled hockey at an early age. Others, like head coach and Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Patrick Byrne, suffered accidents that left them disabled and came to the sport later on in life.
"I never played hockey when I had two legs and here all of a sudden, I was very fortunate where I went to that level of being a Paralympic athlete," he said.
Byrne stressed sled hockey is just as aggressive as the able-bodied version of the game.
"One thing why people love sled hockey so much is because it's actually played like regular hockey," he said. "Only thing we're doing different is we're sitting down, and we're using our arms instead of our legs. We can check as hard as we want. As long as it's a clean hit, everything's legal."
McKee said while he and his teammates are able to get around the ice just fine, the equipment they use does have its limitations.
"Strategies are the same, the only thing is we can't skate backward," McKee said. "For instance, if (an opposing player is) coming on a breakaway on you, if you're the defender, you have to use angles to force a guy wide. You can use a sled to your advantage, kind of getting in peoples' way."
Coaches say that's not the only way McKee uses the sled to his advantage. McKee's core is strong enough so he can do in a sled something his able bodied counterparts on two skates can not.
"He hides the puck because he'll be skating down, he can move his sled without putting his pick on the ice (to maneuver)," assistant coach Derek Daniels said. "It's all about body control, just knowing how your sled works."
Line changes are a different story altogether.
While some rinks are handicapped accessible, others aren't, meaning the team's benches are actually on the ice itself.
"We line up on the boards on the ice unless it's an accessible rink," Mitchell said. "Then you can go off the ice. Mainly we'll change during whistles. It's actually kind of harder for us because the able-bodied guys, they can jump over and get out there right away."
Now, Byrne and Daniels lead their charges into this weekend's Wirtz Cup in West Dundee, the championship weekend for the Midwest Sled Hockey League. It's the fourth of five tournaments the team will take part in this season against teams from Colorado, San Antonio and St. Louis, among others. If history is any indication, the Hawks would be wise to send a little of their current good luck the way of their RIC counterparts. The last time the RIC Blackhawks won the Wirtz Cup was back in 2010, the same year the Blackhawks won a Cup of their own.
The team was formed in 1999 and is supported by Blackhawks Charities.
"They sponsor our sled hockey team and a couple of our other adult sports teams," Daniels said. "They give us a fairly large donation which comes from their charity organization."
While the RIC Blackhawks have played several games at the United Center, none of the NHL Blackhawks have tried their hand at sled hockey.
"That is a goal," Daniels said. "We've been working on it. (With) the way the season falls, it's just been difficult. I think they'd enjoy it."
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