William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles U.S. women's sled hockey player Karina Villegas.
Sled hockey eases Karina Villegas' pain.
The soreness Villegas feels in her elbows and shoulders from walking with crutches and her one leg all day disappears when she's strapped into a sled on the ice.
The heartache she feels since fleeing her native Venezuela in the years following an accident that cost her right leg evaporates in the hurly-burly of a competitive hockey game.
"When I go on the ice, I don't feel any pain," Villegas said. "Everything is happiness and fun. I forget that I am disabled. And when you're in a game or something you feel like a superwoman."
Villegas is a forward for USA Hockey's U.S. Women's Development Sled Hockey Team and a star member of the Space Coast Blast, a sled hockey team out of Rockledge, Florida.
Sled hockey has taken her around the world from Ostrava, Czech Republic, where the U.S. women's team defeated Canada for a world championship in 2018, to Puerto Rico, where Villegas promoted the sport to the disabled community there.
The sport has been Villegas' salvation and sense of purpose since she began playing in 2014 shortly after she visited the rink in Rockledge with her daughter. The rink's pro shop operator, the late Kevin Moore, told her the facility offered sled hockey and asked if she might be interested.
Looking for an athletic outlet, Villegas signed up for a sled hockey clinic and later joined the Blast, enthralled by the rush of freedom and sense of belonging being on the ice gave her.
"This was the first time that I was playing with people who all have disabilities," she said. "It made me happy that it was something different in my life for the first time. And there's something that I see being around hockey players: You become family. I had not seen that before in my life playing other sports."
The 46-year-old lost her right leg when she was 13, after being struck by a government vehicle while standing outside a school in central Venezuela.
"I was pinned underneath between the school wall and the car and was there for about 40 minutes and I was dying," she said. "Gratefully, the firefighters came in and they took me to the hospital in just enough time to be saved. There was not an option at the hospital of them being able to put the leg together. So the amputation was the best thing they could do. They didn't have the resources to put my leg back together."
Losing her leg didn't deter Villegas' love of sports. She learned how to swim and competed in long distance open water marathons.
But as Villegas got older, she no longer felt safe in Venezuela because of the accident and fled to the United States in 2001. She became a U.S. citizen in 2010.
"There is always going to be an empty space because I miss my grandma, my mother, I miss my brothers and sisters, my nephew and nieces," she said. "Hockey helps fill that void. It keeps me occupied."
She joined the U.S. women's national team in 2016-17 and impressed her coaches with her strength and stamina developed from swimming and her perpetually positive attitude.
"She has definitely built up her upper body strength, and that's an extreme help in sled hockey where you're propelling yourself up and down the ice just purely with your arms," said Rose Misiewicz, the U.S. women's coach. "Before and after every practice and before and after every game she's asking what she can do to get better. She always wants more ice time. You can tell she loves the sport."
Villegas said when she arrived in the United States, she never imagined she would someday represent her adopted country on the international stage.
She said was overcome with emotion when the U.S. women's team won the 2018 Women's Para Ice Hockey World Cup.
"It was an unbelievable experience," Villegas said. "We heard the national anthem and saw the flag. I'm on the blue line and I'm not Karina anymore. I'm representing a team, a country. All the feelings came together like the feelings when I came here the first time and I applied for my asylum case, when I got the letter that I was approved, when I got my citizenship.
"It was painful to leave Venezuela, my country, my homeland. But the feeling that you're welcome in another country that you came in with nothing, no clothes, you came as some refugee, is good."
For that, Villegas thanks hockey. She said she wants to pay it forward by working to introduce sled hockey to Latin American countries; she participated in an exhibition of the sport in Puerto Rico in 2018 at an event in conjunction with USA Hockey and the Florida Panthers.
"Hockey has brought so much beauty to my life, so many good things, so many friends that are basically like my family right now, and so many dreams," she said. "I really want to try to go places and bring hockey to them."
Photos Courtesy: Julia Cumes/USA Hockey