San Jose: Disabled hockey players bring a surplus of spirit to the ice – The Mercury News

SAN JOSE — A four-day, four-rink, 119-game hockey tournament that wrapped up Sunday had players jostling, fans whooping and coaches cursing, but there was something a little different about these particular puck fights.

Most of them happen closer to the ice, with players strapped atop bladed sleds, using dual spike-tipped sticks to quickly push themselves around the rink. Other games bring out an unusual puck — an oversized rubber-wrapped steel deal that’s filled with ball bearings that make a racket as it whizzes around.

“Anyone who wants to play can play,” said Jim Smith, president of USA Hockey, who coaches two disabled hockey teams. “This is one of the few sports around where you see that, and that’s what makes this unique. That’s the glue that keeps this together.”

The 2017 Disabled Hockey Festival, in its 13th year but landing in San Jose for the first time, brought with it most of the rules that are normally seen on the ice and all of the spirit — maybe a little more.

“Players may have different things that don’t work right, but they all have a lot of things that do,” said J.J. O’Connor, chairman of the disabled division of USA Hockey. “And they’re competitive with what they’re good at, just like everybody else.”

Watching one of the final games on Sunday at the Solar4America Ice facility in San Jose — aka the venue formerly known as Sharks Ice — O’Connor said the disabled athletes will sometimes joke about their counterparts in other leagues.

“These guys only have two limbs to do everything, from shooting to passing to propelling themselves down the ice,” O’Connor said. “In regular hockey they have two extra limbs — they work half as hard.”

After winning the national championships Saturday night, some of the members of the Colorado Avalanche were headed to South Korea to participate in the world championships, which start this week.

Sled hockey — known in Europe as sledge hockey — has been around since the 1960s and made its Paralympic Games debut in 1994. It’s fast-moving and exciting, and boosters say it’s been growing in popularity as an alternative to other disabled sports such as wheelchair basketball.

Tommie Carlisle, 27, is autistic, has cerebral palsy and went through repeated leukemia treatments. But he’s also a hockey-head and this league is a way to get into a family tradition. His father was a goalie and “his first word was ‘score,’” said his mother, Rhonda.

Carlisle was tending goal for the Grand Rapids Sled Wings in the final on Sunday — which they won — at one point deftly plucking a puck from the air to much ovation from the Michigan contingent in the stands.

“That’s my son,” said Rhonda Carlisle. “That’s what he does.”

There are six divisions in disabled hockey: the sled, which is the most popular; Warrior, for disabled war veterans; deaf or hearing impaired; one for those with a cognitive disorder such as autism or Down syndrome; one for amputees who can play standing up; and one for those partial or complete blindness.

“We had a girl, a goalie, playing blind,” said Jon Gustafson, manager of the rinks. “Her father stood behind her and told her where to move. To see that, it was just amazing. She had so much guts.”

San Lorenzo resident Trooper Johnson, a four-time Paralympian and National Wheelchair Basketball Association hall-of-famer, started a sled hockey program for youth at Oakland Ice seven years ago, and has attracted participants “from Sacramento to Gilroy.”

The young Sharks play at the Oakland and San Jose ice facilities but mostly among themselves — the closest potential rival is down in San Diego and the Disabled Hockey Festival was their debut in competitive games. They won their division title on Sunday, with Garnett Silver-Hall, 15, of Bolinas, scoring a hat trick in the second period of the game against the Chicago Hornets.

Garnett, who also plays wheelchair basketball, said before the match that he found his calling on the ice.

“I want to do it professionally,” he said. “It’s a great sport. I want to get to the Paralympics.”

USA Hockey president Smith said too often kids with disabilities end up “sitting on the sidelines watching their brothers and sisters play.”

“Now,” he said, “it’s their brothers and sisters who are sitting behind the glass watching them play and cheering them on.”

Johnson, who was paralyzed in a drunk driving accident when he was 17, said it’s critical for kids with disabilities to get the opportunities enjoyed by their peers.

“They’re told too often that they can’t play contact sports, and meanwhile their classmates have those outlets — they’re wrestling, they’re playing football,” Johnson said. “But everyone should have those opportunities and a lot of time if we put them in the right kind of gear they can.”

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