Goal Oriented

Disabled? When these young South Jersey athletes hit the ice, they’re anything but.

Disabled? When these young South Jersey athletes hit the ice, they’re anything but.

Seven years ago, after 35 years as a high school and amateur hockey referee, hospital maintenance worker Tom Brake volunteered to work at an Atlantic City sled-hockey tournament. The teams consisted of handicapped players who, strapped into small sleds, propelled themselves across the ice with the handles of their short hockey sticks. “I reffed that first game,” says Brake, a 65-year-old Blackwood native, “and the next day I said, ‘I have got to get involved.’ ”

Tournament founder Mike Doyle of Pennsauken, who became a Paralympic swimmer after his right leg was amputated above the knee following a 1976 motorcycle accident, first learned of sled hockey in 1994. By 1998, he had started a team in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. Five of his players were from New Jersey, so when Brake called to volunteer, Doyle transferred the Garden State players to start the coed Wings of Steel team, based at the Voorhees rink where the Philadelphia Flyers train. “We had kids with spina bifida and cerebral palsy and children who were amputees,” Brake says. “This year, we have eighteen kids on the roster, from nine to nineteen.”

Jessica Shaw, 19, has played on the Wings since 2000. Born with spina bifida, Jessica uses a wheelchair to get around; on her hockey sled she sails easily over the ice. “It’s nice knowing that I can do something an able-bodied person can do,” she says.

The Wings belong to the Atlantic Sled Hockey League, composed of the Willow Grove team and teams in Woodbridge, Vineland, and Baltimore. The Wings rely completely on donations to cover expenses. “I wanted to set this team up so that the families wouldn’t have to pay anything,” Brake says. “The Flyers have been great to us, donating equipment and ice time.”

In addition to the Wings, Brake coaches a junior national team of kids twenty and under, sort of a feeder squad for the U.S. Paralympic team. “Last November, we took them to compete in Sweden,” he says. “We won the gold medal.” Former Wings players Tim Jones of Mount Ephraim and Jim Connelly of Egg Harbor Township will compete on the U.S. team at the Paralympic Games taking place next month in Torino, Italy, after the Olympics.

“To get these kids, who couldn’t otherwise play, and give them the life experience of having friends and teammates, of believing in themselves, is invaluable,” says Doyle, who last year earned a youth sports award from the Positive Coaching Alliance. “There’s a lot to be learned in locker rooms, and these kids teach all of us some important lessons.”

For more information on sled hockey, visit sledhockey.net.

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