Sled hockey includes disabled hockey players

Sled hockey player. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Sled hockey player. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Duluth, Minnesota is a town that loves hockey. The city of roughly 85,000 people is as crazy about hockey as anywhere in America, with countless youth hockey organizations, successful high school hockey teams, and the back-to-back NCAA national champion UMD Bulldogs.

But there’s one talented young hockey player in Duluth that you’ve probably never heard of. His name is Blake Eaton, and he is one of the top sled hockey players in the state.

Sled hockey is a modified version of hockey played mainly by people with a physical disability. The sport gets its name from the sled the player sits on, which has a skate blade on the bottom. The player carries two sticks with spikes on the end, allowing them to propel themselves around the ice. Other than that, the rules of play are the same.

For Eaton, the differences are minimal. “Really it’s just like any other hockey,” he said. “Just we play differently. Our arms are our legs, our arms are everything. But otherwise, it’s pretty much the same exact game.”

Eaton, who uses a wheelchair, began playing sled hockey at age seven. However, because Duluth does not have an organized youth sled hockey team, Eaton has been forced to look elsewhere for opportunities to play. Currently, the Denfeld High School freshman plays for the Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey team, which is based in the Twin Cities.

As Blake’s father, Troy, explains, the travel required for Blake to play is quite time-consuming. The Eatons travel to the Twin Cities and back each weekend for practice, as well as to tournaments in various locations across the Midwest.

“The last three years we’ve been traveling quite a bit. We’ve been going out to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for tournaments. We go up to Moorehead. We’ve been up to Chicago... We’ve been to Madison, Wisconsin Dells,” Troy said.

Participation in sled hockey is growing in North America. So why, in a hockey-mad city such as Duluth, has sled hockey failed to take root? Eric Larson, an adaptive sports expert at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Center in Duluth, has been asking himself this question for years.

“Hockey is one of those things where you would think just naturally in a community like Duluth, which is so hockey-centric, you would’ve had people coming out of the woodwork to play,” said Larson.

According to Larson, one obstacle for prospective sled hockey participants is Duluth itself, which is not an easy city for a disabled person to navigate.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the way our community is set up. It’s not as user-friendly a community for people with mobility impairment, being that it’s on a hill,” Larson said. “A lot of people who are active wheelchair users that are active people that want to play go to a community that is a little bit more accessible and where there are other people who are doing the same thing.”

Cost is another barrier that prevents some from participating in the sport. Hockey is an expensive activity for any family, but sled hockey requires specialized equipment that can be hard to come by, and, as Troy explained, it can be quite expensive.

“We were able to, through our church and the generosity of our church, they had what they call a ‘Blake bake sale’, and one Sunday they raised over $1,000 and we used that money to buy Blake his first sled,“ Troy said.

Recently, when Blake needed a new sled, it was grant money from organizations like the Challenged Athlete Foundation and United Healthcare Foundation that made it possible for the family to afford the needed equipment.

But as Troy explained, even with support from the community, it is a huge commitment for the whole family to help Blake play competitive sled hockey.

“At some point we decided ‘Okay, we’re gonna let Blake compete and play competitively’, and we’re very glad that we made that choice,” Troy said. “Sometimes we leave our other kids behind, and sometimes, we try not to, but we take them for granted… They have to make sacrifices.”

Christian Koelling is a co-founder of Duluth Area Sled and Special Hockey, or DASSH, as well as the Director of Hockey Operation for the University of Minnesota Duluth. As Koelling explained, DASSH did originally have a sled hockey group, but it was difficult to maintain.

“Initially we had a really good, pretty solid sled group,” Koelling said. “We had a hard time keeping the sled hockey going because three of our participants were UMD students that went on, and then two of them were really good and were going down to the cities.”

“The area that’s really taken off has been the special hockey team,” Koelling said.

Special hockey, which according to the Minnesota Special Hockey website is for children and adults with developmental disabilities, has seen significant growth in Duluth since the formation of DASSH in 2012.

According to Koelling, DASSH is all about trying to use hockey to improve lives and give people a sense of community.

“We just felt like hockey is such a part of our culture in northern Minnesota and in Duluth, and that people with different abilities should have the opportunity to play the game and be a part of a team,” Koelling said.

“I’m really looking for that person that is trying to find something, that doesn’t have that sense of belonging and by being part of a team, that would serve a benefit for them in their life.” Koelling added.

As for the lack of traction for sled hockey in Duluth, Koelling believes the issue is deeper than the city being on a hill, although he admits that doesn’t make it easier.   

“Even through sled hockey and my involvement and talking to people throughout the country, it’s not just Duluth where a lot of people in wheelchairs stay in the woods,” Koelling said. “Maybe it’s for psychological reasons, maybe it’s just because it’s difficult physically to go anywhere,” he said.

However, there are efforts being made to bring prospective sled hockey players into the fold. As Troy Eaton explained, plans are being made for a ‘Try Sled Hockey’ event in Duluth next fall, possibly involving the men’s and women’s Bulldog hockey teams.

“Hopefully that’ll happen, and that would be a definite step in the right direction to try and bring out some of those kids and young adults who may have seen it, but are afraid or not sure if it’s something that they can do,” Eaton said. “Hopefully it’s something that might generate some momentum and hopefully get a program going up here.”

In the meantime, Koelling has a message for anyone who might be interested in playing sled or special hockey.

“People, especially parents, don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s hockey and whatever level of ability your child may have, don’t count him out or her out or us out. We’ll get them skating,” Koelling said. “I don’t care who you are, I will get you skating.”

For more information on how to get involved in sled or special hockey, visit the Minnesota Special Hockey website.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this story contained the wrong byline. The mistake has been corrected.