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Sled Devils Program Expands the Reach of Youth Hockey

by Anthony Smith / New Jersey Devils
(Photo/NJ Sled Devils)

Like many other men and women in New Jersey, Al Graul coaches youth hockey. But his job description is not quite the same as that of your typical youth hockey coach.

Graul is the head coach of the Sled Hockey team for the New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey Club. Sled Hockey, also referred to as Sledge Hockey, allows children who suffer from mobility impairments to play hockey. These children do not play the game on skates, but rather on a specially designed sled device that allows them to move freely around the rink. This sled sits on two ice hockey skate blades, and the athletes use two sticks to propel themselves.

The game of hockey has helped the players that have gone through the program grow up not only as hockey players, but in everyday life as well. As the head coach of the team since its inception, watching his players mature and overcome obstacles through the years in order to succeed gives Graul an abundance of pride.

“To the children, some of whom are now adults, just watching them smile and enjoy the time of playing this great game [is satisfying],” Graul points out. “Just think, back then, no one ever imagined that kids with these special needs would ever be on the ice.”

The program was started in 2000 with three children participating. It has grown to include 11 children today, two of whom have been a part of the program since its inception. The program was initiated after the parents of a child suffering from fibrous dysplasia, a bone disease that damages normal bone tissue, came to the Devils Youth Hockey Club about starting a Sled Hockey team, an idea that was widely accepted by the club.

Using two sticks and a specially equipped sled, Sled Hockey allows mobility impaired children to play hockey. (Photo/NJ Sled Devils)

Since this was a new venture for Graul and the organization, however, building the program required hard work.

“At first, we had to learn where to go to reach out to kids with special needs and invite them to come down to try the program,” Graul explains. “I had no special training on how to handle kids with special needs and we had to ‘wing it’ at first.”

But ‘winging it’ ultimately helped the Sled Devils’ coaches develop a firm grasp on how to teach this variation of hockey, and it allowed the program to flourish.

“Over time it became second nature, and with the help of some duct tape, it all worked out,” Graul says.

Sled Hockey must be played on specially outfitted rinks. These rinks require a bench area that sits flush with the ice so that the players can easily transfer themselves on and off of the surface. Also, the front of the bench areas must be plexiglass instead of the traditional white boards so that the players can see game action. Richard J. Codey Arena in South Orange is one rink that is equipped for Sled Hockey, as the team calls this rink their home.

“You acquire a new perspective on how these kids meet the day to day challenges and you realize how fortunate you are .It does not matter what obstacles you face in life, there are ways to compensate and overcome them.” - Al Graul

Aside from using a sled to travel around the ice, the game is no different than traditional ice hockey. Therefore, it allows the children to receive the full benefits of playing the game. This has allowed Graul to watch his players grow and prosper with the sport, something that provides him with great satisfaction.

“When they play a game, you can see that all they want to do is compete just like anyone else, and that is most rewarding,” Graul says.

Many people have the opportunity to coach the game of hockey, from the mite level all the way through the high school level. But not many people can say they have coached children who require a different approach to coaching than the traditional game calls for.

Graul has embraced this unique opportunity, and it has taught him lessons that he otherwise would not have learned. He says that no matter what obstacles you face in life, there are ways to get past them. This is a lesson that he has embraced and has passed along to his players. Graul is certain that being involved in Sled Hockey teaches other valuable lessons that his players should take with them throughout their lives.

“Anyone can overcome any challenge if they are given the opportunity and proper support,” Graul believes. “Be thankful for your blessings.”

For more, head to NJ Youth Hockey Central.

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