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Disabled veterans hit ice with passion on display

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Sled hockey is among sports for the disabled popular with wounded veterans.

DOVER, N.H. - Mike Downing, a hockey goalie, squared himself as Craig Brady fired a shot that flew past Downing’s outstretched glove but clanged harmlessly off the crossbar.

Downing flashed a grin at his teammate, a fellow Afghanistan veteran, as they began a grueling 90-minute practice. Besides a passion for the game, they also share this: Downing and Brady play hockey despite the loss of legs in combat.

The pair belong to the Northeast Passage Wildcats, a team composed of disabled players who use custom-built sleds to push, pivot, and propel themselves around the ice, and they play a highly competitive schedule. Next month, they will compete for the national sled hockey title in Dallas.

Downing, Brady, and another player wounded in Afghanistan form a key part of the Wildcats, whose other members cope with disabilities such as spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy. To the veterans, the sport is an outlet for their competitiveness and a balm for their spirit.

“Once you’re out there on the ice, no matter what, it’s still hockey,’’ said Downing, a 45-year-old double amputee from Middleborough. “I look forward to it every single week. It sounds funny, but it’s for me. It’s something that’s truly mine.’’

Sled hockey and other sports for the disabled have become popular with wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom might have died on the battlefields of Vietnam and earlier wars but now are surviving because of combat-driven medical advances.

For many of these veterans, the discipline they needed in military life has carried over to competition that requires them to think, react, and move in dramatically new ways.

For the sled hockey players, that means strapping their legs, or parts of their legs, onto a sled that sits atop two skate blades. Propulsion comes from the shoulders, back, and arms, which use two, shortened hockey sticks as poles to start, stop, and turn.

The sticks, which are held in each hand, have small metal cleats to gain traction. They also function as regular hockey sticks to pass, control, and shoot the puck, sometimes as fast as 80 miles per hour.

The Wildcats, who play in the Northeast Sled Hockey League, compete at the top level of the game. They own a 14-3 record this year, have two Paralympic gold medalists, and boast of teammate Kristy Vaughn, a University of New Hampshire freshman who, in the view of coach Tom Carr, might be the best woman player in the world.

Downing, who played goalie at Walpole High School in Massachusetts, relishes the hard-nose aspects of the game - hard collisions, awkward spills, and slapshots that bounce off his goalie mask.

“I love the game,’’ said Downing, a father of four who served with the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

Downing lost his legs in September 2008, one at the knee and one above the knee, when a remote-controlled, 300-pound bomb shattered his Humvee and threw him from the gun turret.

Downing lay on the ground, his legs splayed and bleeding, for more than 30 minutes as a gunfight raged around him. He was airlifted to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and later to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, where he was married while lying in bed less than a week after the explosion.

“You get over it. If you don’t, then you’re in trouble. Pick up and move on,’’ Downing said. “There’s no reason to feel bad for us. The last thing you want is someone’s sympathy. It’s hockey. We just do it a bit differently.’’

What is not different is the athletic bond within the team. When Downing told Carr he might lose some weight before the championships, Carr responded with a joke: “Don’t lose too much. We need you to take up some room.’’

Carr clearly cares about the players, but said he does not allow sympathy to affect his coaching.

“This team is out here to win,’’ said Carr, who oversees competitive sports for the Northeast Passage disabilities program at the University of New Hampshire. Handicaps do not lead to short cuts, he said. “Maybe it means they have to work even harder.’’

Grady, a 24-year-old defenseman, lost his right leg when he stepped on a mine in 2010. He also played goalie, at Norwood High School in Massachusetts, before enlisting in the Marines after graduation.

During practice, Grady seemed to be everywhere on the ice, thwarting players as they converged on the goal, flinging cross-ice passes to teammates, and digging hard in laps of sprints.

Grady, like Downing, did not have time for might-have-beens.

“When did you get blown up?’’ Downing asked Brady as the younger veteran walked into the rink on a prosthetic right leg.

“I didn’t get blown up,’’ Brady answered with a smile. “I was out wrestling alligators.’’

Mike Murphy, a player who also lost a leg in Afghanistan, can relate.

“That’s Mike Zero,’’ said Murphy, pointing to the two empty places where Downing’s legs used to be.

“I’m Mike One,’’ Murphy said, because he has one good leg. “Mike Two isn’t here.’’

Murphy, 36, travels five hours round trip from Corinna, Maine, to practice at the Dover Ice Arena. “This is what you do to have fun in the sport you play,’’ he said with a shrug.

When asked what he enjoys about sled hockey, Murphy ticked off a litany of benefits: “The lack of disability, the hitting, the sportsmanship, and a little bit of camaraderie.’’

When he is on the ice, Murphy explained, the word “disabled’’ disappears. The rules are the same as “stand-up hockey,’’ the will to win is just as keen, and the practices are just as intense.

“I ran track and cross-country,’’ said Murphy, who attended Austin Prep in Reading, Mass. “But this put an end to that real quick,’’ he said, pointing to his prosthetic right leg.

“There’s somewhere to go with this, though,’’ Murphy said of sled hockey. “The championships are coming up.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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