NEWINGTON, Conn. — Propelling himself toward the opponents’ net, Taylor Chace took a cross-ice pass from a teammate and fired the puck over the goaltender’s glove, giving his team, the Northeast Passage Wildcats, a 1-0 lead over the New Jersey Freeze in the opening minutes of a recent Northeast Sled Hockey League contest at the Newington Ice Arena.
Chace went on to dominate at both ends of the ice, playing shut-down defense while assisting on another goal in a 4-0 victory. His game-changing play was no surprise to anyone familiar with sled hockey, a version of the sport tailored to disabled athletes like Chace and growing rapidly at both the elite and developmental levels.
Chace, 27, a New Hampshire native, took up sled hockey 10 years ago after suffering a spinal-cord injury in a junior-league hockey game. In March, the University of New Hampshire grad will skate — yes, the term does apply — for the US national team at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, site of the upcoming Olympics.
“To be playing on a sled at first was really frustrating,” says Chace, an all-around athlete who excelled at several sports before his injury. “I was starting all over again at something that before came to me naturally. I knew what to do on the ice, but I couldn’t move to get there.”
As soon as he took his first hit from an opposing player, though, and scored a goal or two, “I was hooked,” he recalls. “I kept practicing all the time.”
This year’s games will mark Chace’s third Paralympics and one in which the US team is considered a strong contender (along with Canada and Russia) to win a gold medal. The Americans took home gold at the 2010 games in Vancouver, where Chace was named the top defenseman.
He is hardly the only impact player on the Wildcats’ roster this year, however. Teammate Craig Brady, who lost part of a leg while serving with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, also played for the US national team that won a silver medal at last year’s world championships in South Korea. He barely missed making this year’s Paralympics squad. A UNH sophomore majoring in therapeutic recreation, Brady, 26, coaches in Northeast Passage’s development program, instructing kids as young as 6 how to scoot around the ice on their sleds like mini-Patrice Bergerons.
“Ten or 15 years ago, people didn’t even know about” sled hockey, says Chace, who like Brady coaches younger players in an effort to spread the sport’s appeal. “Now kids who were born with a disability have the opportunity to start playing at a very young age.”
Most importantly, says Chace, the sport has given him a second shot at something he deeply loves: hanging around the rink and competing with teammates who love the game as much as he does, a camaraderie mentioned by players and coaches whenever they talk about what sled hockey means to them.
Chace discovered the sport through his sister, a UNH student at the time, who was doing volunteer work for Northeast Passage, a university-sponsored therapeutic recreation program whose motto is “Living Beyond Disability.” Unsure whether he’d ever play competitive sports again — his initial goal was relearning how to walk — Chace accepted a suggestion to give sled hockey a try.
“It’s been therapy for me, actually,” says Chace, who will spend most of the next two months training with the US team and playing in pre-Paralympics exhibition games.
According to Wildcat coach Bill Stewart, what makes the 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pound Chace one of the best sled hockey players in the country, if not the world, is his rare combination of physical strength, hockey savvy, and work ethic.
“Taylor’s a very physical, intense guy, with a lethal shot from either hand,” says Stewart. “But he’s also spent countless hours working on his shot and his skating, which at the elite level you need to do to be competitive.”
Meanwhile, Chace, Stewart, and others are determined to expand sled hockey — a sport invented in Sweden in the 1960s, also known as sledge hockey — to a larger pool of potential players. This group includes not only disabled combat vets like Brady, who make up the fastest-growing contingent of elite-level players, but also younger children and teens with disabilities, who often find their options to play competitive sports severely limited.
Northeast Passage offers a range of sports programs for the disabled, including its sled-hockey development program, which splits ice time between rinks in Exeter, N.H., and in Dedham at the Noble and Greenough School. At least two current Wildcat players — Griffin LaMarre, 17, a high school junior from Haverhill, and David Eustace, 14, a freshman at Stoneham High — got their start as NEP development players.
LaMarre, born with hereditary spastic paraparesis, a condition causing stiffness and contraction in his lower limbs, has developed into a standout goalie. Eustace, who lost part of his left leg in a 2004 car accident outside his elementary school, is the youngest member of the Wildcats and came close to making the US junior national team last year.
“It’s grown into a pretty big thing for David,” says Paul Eustace, his father.
Among other major players on the Wildcats roster are two more UNH students: Dan Santos, 20, a junior from Long Island, N.Y., who has skated with the USA junior national team; and sophomore Kevin Lynch, 20, from Freehold, N.J., a member of the N.J. Freeze before he enrolled at UNH, specifically because of its sled-hockey program.
Lynch is afflicted with spina bifida, a congenital condition in which the spinal column does not fully close in utero. Santos’s legs are affected by femoral hypoplasia, an underdevelopment of the thigh bones. Both have embraced the sport, they say, and their on-ice abilities reflect that. Lynch scored a pair of goals against the Freeze, earning a “game helmet” award from Stewart, while Santos (his nickname is The Gnat) showed his remarkable maneuverability, weaving through traffic to set up teammates with crisp, accurate passes.
“I have a lot of fun out there, but it’s also real intense,” Lynch remarked in the locker room after the game. “And it’s an honor to play with guys like Taylor.”
According to J.J. O’Connor, chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, whose organization offers four alternatives to so-called stand-up hockey, sled hockey’s recent growth has been dramatic, boosted by its embrace by the National Hockey League and by other paralympic sports organizations.
Three years ago, four teams competed in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, open to teams across the nation. Last year drew 16 entries, a fourfold increase. In all, he says, 50 adult and junior teams are competing in the sport, with an estimated 1,500 players participating.
“The number of sled teams continues to grow, and they’re playing at a higher level, too,” O’Connor says. ”Having more and more players produces more potential high-level players, and we’re seeing that.”
Stewart runs a strength and conditioning center in Somersworth, N.H., when he’s not coaching sled hockey. Several factors have contributed to the sport’s growth, he says, including the US Paralympics organization funding more local clubs and paralympic sports in general; more disabled vets taking up sled hockey, elevating its level of athleticism and competitiveness; and, better equipment hitting the market, from more streamlined sleds to improved blade technology.
With NEP’s development team, he says, up to 30 families are currently participating, with more expressing interest as they become aware of sled hockey’s many benefits.
“It’s really a grass-roots effort” to grow the sport, says Stewart, helped by exhibitions at area rinks. Letting young athletes experience a competitive sport and the social network that goes with it, is a major draw , he adds.
That is something 6-year old Gavin Ford of North Reading would definitely agree with. Born with spina bifida, Gavin became fascinated with hockey as a baby, says Jennifer Ford, his mother. Once a family friend built Gavin a custom hockey sled, there was no looking back.
“It has absolutely changed our lives,” says Ford. Playing hockey, a sport many New England families take for granted as part of their wintertime routine, might seem beyond the reach of a boy like Gavin. That’s no longer the case. In fact, she says, on the ice he’s as intensely competitive as any peewee hockey player around.
Beyond that, she adds, the social value of belonging to a group where “differently abled” is normal, not isolating, is virtually incalculable. “We’ve met everyone from kids born with birth defects to double-amputee combat veterans,” she notes. “They’ve all made our lives richer and fuller.”