When the 2014 Olympic Winter Games ended on February 23, Sochi wasn’t quite finished hosting the world’s best athletes as two weeks later athletes would once again descend on the city for the 2014 Paralympic Games. During this year’s Paralympic Games, sled hockey will be contested for the sixth time since making its Paralympic debut in 1994.
Sled hockey has the same rules as upward (or standing) ice hockey, but the players utilize slightly different equipment. In sled hockey, players sit in specially designed sleds equipped with two hockey blades, and use two sticks; both of which are used to shoot the puck and help propel the players in their sleds across the ice.
Even with conditions like Spina Bifida, amputations or cerebral palsy, sled hockey players are hockey players just like their standing counterparts and for Nashville’s Sled Preds, that is a fact they like to keep very clear.
The National Wheelcats, an organization that provides sports activities for people with disabilities, started the Sled Preds youth team in 2011 with a grant through the Predators Foundation. Building on the success of the youth team, an adult team was launched in January 2013.
“There was an adult team 10 years ago that didn’t last,” Sled Pred Director Troy Weise said. “Scheduling conflicts and lack of communication played a big role in the previous team being unsuccessful, something that is no longer an issue for the new program.”
Nashville is still a developmental team, but with more states in the southeast adding sled hockey leagues, Weise is hopeful that a competitive league will be created in the near future to combine the new southern teams.
“[North] Carolina just got a team; Lexington, Kentucky just had a clinic a few weeks ago and are trying to start a team,” Weise said. “There are leagues in bigger areas, like St. Louis. We went up there and talked to them and they were really good about showing us how to practice.”
For parents, the Sled Preds have been an outlet for their children to shine. Sylvia Fitzgerald, mother of 9-year-old Heath, said her son was born on the ice rink, spending his days in the rink and was around hockey even before he got the opportunity to join the Sled Preds.
Heath, who has dreamed of playing on the Paralympic sled hockey team ever since he began playing the sport three years ago, has a special connection to the team currently representing the United States in Sochi.
“The first year Heath was on the ice he met the Paralympic goalie, Steve Cash, and he’s been talking about him for three years,” Fitzgerald said. “Heath played with them this past fall in St. Louis, and we met him again and played with him before he went to train.”
Kristie Terrell’s 10-year-old son Evan plays alongside Heath. Both Heath and Evan have Spina Bifida, a condition that affects the development of the spine and spinal cord, causing limited lower body mobility. Evan got involved in the Sled Preds last year after learning about the program through Heath, and he’s already hooked.
“We watched the Paralympics opening ceremony and Evan goes, ‘Mom, look at all those people in wheelchairs! I could be there. I could play for the US Sled Hockey Team,’” Terrell said. “I told him that that could be his goal. We have become a hockey family and have watched more hockey in the last month than we have our entire lives. The best part is that it is something he enjoys watching that he can now play.”
The Sled Preds are definitely a family affair. On the adult team, married couple Jamie and Maggie Reeves have the opportunity to play alongside each other.
“I’ve never been a girly girl,” Maggie, who suffers from a back injury, said. “I’ve always been the tomboy type who’s not afraid to get hurt. This sport shows that we won’t be broken. We may look fragile, but we’re not.”
Jamie, who is confined to a wheelchair, has watched the Predators play for years, hoping that one day he would find a way to participate in the sport that he loved. Through research, he found the National Wheelcats and called the director to express his interest in playing. The rest is history as they say, Jamie has been playing goalie for the Sled Preds for the last two years.
“Don’t let anyone get in the way of your dreams. Follow your mind, and follow your heart,” Jamie said.
Coach Jeff Loyd, who played on Nashville’s first sled hockey team, played a major role in getting the new league up and running. In his days as a player, Loyd had the opportunity to play in larger sled hockey markets like St. Louis, and even tried out for the Paralympics a few times. In St. Louis, he was able to compete alongside a few of the players currently representing the United States in Sochi.
“I received the grant through the Predators Foundation three years ago to get the youth team going,” Loyd said. “After someone has an injury, they might not feel like they can get back into sports. It brings them back together among their peers and lets them communicate.”
Loyd believes the youth team is a building block for the adult program, and is always encouraging the kids to watch the NHL to keep learning.
With the growing popularity of sled hockey in Music City, Smashville faithful might find themselves getting up early to watch international hockey and show their Preds Pride for more than just the two weeks of the Olympics. In 2022, Nashville’s own Heath and Evan could be part of the U.S. Sled Hockey team that captivates the Nation and goes on their own run for gold.
For more information about getting involved with the Sled Preds, as either a volunteer or a participant, contact Troy Weise at 770-561-0038 or nationalwheelcats.org. For information on how to donate new or used equipment, call Jeff Loyd at (931) 221-0041.