Imagine having little or no use of your legs, strapping yourself to a piece of aluminum and racing across the ice on blades toward a competitor who might hit you with a stick.
That’s what dozens of men and women who have lost the ability to ice skate on their feet flocked to Wake Forest this weekend to do. It was the first tournament in North Carolina for hockey players who compete on sleds.
“It’s no holds barred,” said Kris Mercer of Zebulon, captain of the Triangle’s team Cat5 Canes.
Sled hockey is nearly identical to traditional hockey. Pucks go in the goal, and a masked goalie tries his hardest to keep that from happening. Players race around an ice rink and welcome the chance to ram into one another.
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Sled hockey players can’t stand, so they slide on a contraption that functions like a sled. Some of the players have lost a leg or both; other have spinal cord injuries. They are strapped onto aluminum seats secured on top of skate blades.
A spinal cord injury stripped Mercer, 44, of the ability to walk 16 years ago; a staph infection claimed his right leg five years ago. He worried his injuries would take away his ability to play sports, too.
When he heard about sled hockey, Mercer was hooked before he even got out on the ice. Having grown up playing football, Mercer was drawn to the level of contact. Sled hockey is rough and tumble, and when a player gets knocked over, it can take minutes before he can right his sled.
In the six years he has played, Mercer has cracked ribs, broken his hand and, once, nearly broke his only leg.
“We’re already hurt. What more could really happen?” Mercer asked. “We aren’t dead. We want to have fun and make the most of a bad situation.”
This weekend, Cat5 Canes invited teams from Florida, Virginia and Tennessee to square off in matches over three days at Polar Ice House in Wake Forest. The town helped sponsor the event.
On Saturday afternoon, two teams from Florida squared off in a fierce battle. They crashed into one another as they maneuvered the wooden paddles used to both scoot them across the ice and slap the puck. When two players rammed into each other, tipping both of their sleds, their teammates kept moving, chasing the puck while the overturned players struggled to get back in the game.
The tournament wraps up Sunday with action scheduled to start at 8 a.m.
While the Triangle team’s 14 adult players all have conditions that keep them from ice skating, the coaches are able-bodied volunteers who have competed in hockey.
When Joe Ribar started coaching the team, he didn’t know exactly what he had gotten into. He had to teach the rules and strategy of hockey but also how to physically maneuver in an awkward contraption.
“There are challenges to coaching because I don’t know what they feel. Conveying what they need to do based on something I can’t feel – that’s hard sometimes,” Ribar said.
Now and again, Ribar says he straps himself into a sled and wills his legs to stop feeling.
“I want to try and get some idea of what it must feel like to play this way,” he said.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews