By David Streich
More Photos and Story here….
Sled Hockey Clinic Photos by Jim D’Angelo/Ruby Media Group
When I chose to have my leg amputated this past December due to bone cancer, I had no idea that my road to recovery would be smoothed out by a Zamboni. But it was, thanks to the adaptive sport called Sled Hockey. Like you, I had no idea such a sport ever existed. In late December, Mike Hudson, who lost his leg when he was hit by a car in a work-related incident at a construction site, called me to let me know that just because I lost my leg, I didn’t lose my life. He suggested I try sled hockey, and I just laughed. Here I was three weeks after losing my leg, and I could barely even imagine walking again. “Yeah, right,” I said, “maybe next year!”
It hadn’t occurred to me that the next year actually started just a few days later.
Soon afterwards, another stranger named Ron Rogell, the only able bodied member of the team, read my Inside Chappaqua article “One Step Back, Two Steps Forward” (February, 2012), and saw that I enjoyed bowling, biking and hiking. He stalked me out on Facebook, and told me that there would be a sled hockey practice on the New York Rangers training ice in Elmsford. Who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity to get on the ice where the amazing Rangers play? As the father of two young Rangers fans, this would certainly impress my boys. I owed it to them to try it, at least this one time. I asked their mother to put their blue shirts on and I would take them with me.
Mike told me that I would need a helmet, chest protector and elbow pads. I went on a spree at Modell’s but left the tags on so I could return the gear the next day. As long as I didn’t get hit in the head with the puck, the helmet would still be in great shape.
When we got to arena, I met Mike and Ron, and they fit me in a sled, telling me to sit in the bucket and strap myself in. The sled features two parallel ice skate blades under the seat, and a pin that balanced the foot end. Mike handed me two shortened hockey sticks, a lefty and a righty, which had metal picks on the bottoms so I can row, row, row, to propel myself. Once I was strapped in, Mike sent me sailing onto the ice, adrift over the huge Rangers logo on center ice.
The first thing a new player needs to learn is how to fall down and get back up again. It is something that happens often in the beginning. But once I found my balance, and I was able to push myself along with the sticks, it was both unbelievable and amazing! For two months, I had been laying in bed, first with my right leg in a brace, and then with no right leg.
On solid ground, I could move at maybe one mile an hour with crutches or a walker. But here, on the ice, I was flying! How freeing it felt, how special it was to feel the air rush through my helmet and onto my face as I was the one to make it happen with my own energy… Continued Below…
I met several other athletes that night, and I commented to one of them that I only had one leg, but he had two, and he said, “Yeah, but your one leg works, and my two don’t. I have spina bifida.” It just went to show me that this sport is for so many different people for so many reasons, and no matter what your situation is, you’re not the only one who’s got challenges.
At the end of the practice, we played a scrimmage pick-up game, and I got my first attempt at puck handling, checking and slamming. The other players couldn’t believe that I was only two months amputated. I let a lot of pent-up feelings out on the ice that night.
So when I got off the ice at the end of the session, there must have been a huge smile on my face. “So what did you think?” Mike asked, his smile as wide as mine.
“Well, I bought this helmet thinking that I was going to return it,” I confessed as I took it off, “but instead, I’m going home and writing my name in this sucker!” I was never more surprised at myself, and I was so happy that my two sons were there to watch me as I found my new therapeutic, physical, emotional and spiritual salvation.
A few weeks later, I followed the team up to Saugerties, NY for the final two games of the regular season. Lucky for me, they had an extra team jersey, so I got to participate in real official games. I may have played for only five minutes, but I was out there, playing my heart out, trying to hit that puck, pass it to a team mate, and most importantly, not fall down. It was thrilling. But even more thrilling was when I left the ice, and my four-year-old boy, Rocket, ran up to greet me in my Rangers uniform. “Daddy, you look like a superhero!” he shouted. That is a sentence I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Flash forward a few weeks, and I’m chasing the team down to Philadelphia for a weekend-long tournament. We played four games in one day, and another one on Sunday morning. By this time, I have gotten a little bit better, and a lot more dedicated. In between games, we were interviewed by a busload of foreign exchange high school students about our disabilities and the sport. We felt like celebrities.
But the real celebrity status happened the next Thursday, when our team was invited by the real NHL New York Rangers to showcase our skills in Madison Square Garden between first and second periods of a game against the Penguins. We walked and wheeled through the bowels of MSG and excitedly prepped ourselves in our own locker room. As the first period ended and the pro players left the ice, we were escorted through the wide Zamboni entrance. One by one, we pushed ourselves to the center ice of the world’s most famous arena, in front of fifteen thousand hockey fans, including my ten-year-old son, Clever, and my brother, Jeffrey, who served as our official photographer. I’m sure that his job was as thrilling for him as mine was for me.
We were warned that time would go by so quickly, and to remember to look up at the ceiling and the crowd. They announced each of our names as we got a chance to rush the net and take a shot on goal. We were even projected onto every facet of the scoreboard video screens. Nearly everyone made their goal, but when it was my turn, my heart was pounding, and I kept telling myself not to fall. I was able to control my puck right up until my shot on goal, when the puck was deflected by the foot point on my own sled. On one hand, it was a minor let-down, but on the other hand, I figured, that’s why they invented “Next Year!”
While I enjoyed the sport of sled hockey, one thing was clear to me. Just like how learning to walk again would take time and practice, sled hockey was no different. That’s where the genius of the Sled Hockey Clinic comes into play. Every Monday for ten weeks, a group of us get together at the Westchester Skating Academy to hone our skills, practice drills, take aggression out on the ice, and most importantly, bond as brothers.
In the team photo, above, from left to right, there are my favorite teammates Ron Rogell, 43, the only able-bodied player on our team. A life-long hockey fan, he jumped at the chance to be a part of this sport, and he is very helpful when it comes to loading and unloading the bulky sleds and gear bags. When asked what his favorite memory on or off the ice, he responded, “Seeing the smile on David’s face the first time he got on the ice.”
Rocco Greco, 48, had the same kind of cancer I had—chondrosarcoma—in his left ankle. In May 2011, he lost his leg below the knee, but then the cancer returned, and he had to have a second amputation on his left leg, above the knee. Rocco found out about sled hockey from his doctor in charge of his physical therapy. His next big goal is to walk with his prosthesis without the aid of crutches, and after that, he wants to be able to run.
Dexter Benjamin was hit by a truck 27 years ago in Trinidad, and lost his leg when it took too long before his operation. He says sled hockey changed his life, giving him a sense of freedom. His advice for all is to stay strong, don’t let anything keep you back, and treat everyone with respect.
Then there’s me, David Streich, 43.
Since Mario Mason, 46, lost his leg to an infection in his bone two years ago, he tries to take advantage of everything that is available to him, including running, biking, exercising and skiing… none of which he did with two legs. It was a blessing in disguise. “Sled Hockey gives me a sense of normalcy, if there’s such a thing. I love that it’s a full-contact sport. But my favorite moments are when we get off the ice, take off our helmets and we’re all sitting in the locker room, laughing. That’s when we feel like a family.”
Finally, last but not least, our Captain, Mike Hudson, 38, who lost his leg when he was hit by a car in a work-related incident at a construction site. He was also hooked at first ice, and while he’s very proud of his hat trick in the final game of the regular season, his big goal is to keep spreading the word of sports therapy and getting as many physically limited people involved. “It can really change your life.”
We have plans over the next year to continue to build an adaptive sports network in New York, and expand our education to the general public, but we will need your help.
To find out more about the Westchester Sled Hockey Clinic, watch insane point-of-view videos, visit us at the rink, get on our mailing list and discover how you can donate your time and money to our non-profit organization, please “like” us at facebook.com/sledhockeyclinic.