“The tighter together they are the better,” a woman, whose face is buried somewhere inside a hurricane of coats, says as she bungee cords my legs together.
I’m not sure I agree.
The moment gives off a "Misery" vibe, as if Kathy Bates is about to walk down the hall and break my ankles. If I had to guess, this woman has never read a word I’ve written, let alone ones that would give her cause to strap me to a metal sled and shove me out onto a sheet of ice. Yet here we are.
So far my mostly upright crash course in sled hockey — more affectionally referred to as sledge hockey among the initiated — has been a laundry list of things I should do simply to avoid hurting myself. The two sticks you have are shortened versions of the usual curved blades, but the fun starts on the other end, metal prongs bolted in place to give players something to grip the ice with.
There is a lot of stabbing in sled hockey, a fact that yields the most important nugget of advice so far.
“Don’t stab yourself in the leg,” I hear from behind. Apparently that is a thing that happens.
That kind of tip makes you look at the sticks a bit more. The thought of planting one into your thigh will do that to a person. There is a strong sense that once-upon-a-time these could have served many purposes. As if a group of friends playing on a frozen lake deep in the Canadian (although Sweden claims the rights to sledge hockey's formation in the 1960s) wilderness decided that they may as well weaponize their equipment if a bear decided to join the game while they were still strapped to sleds.
Thankfully there are no bears at Pegula Ice Arena.
However there is the neck guard, because of course there is. I’ve been told there is an off chance that during a collision the sharp skate blades on the underside of the sled might flip in the air and cut my throat.
Apparently, in theory — and sometimes in practice — these neck guards are optional, although otherwise encouraged to prevent everyone from doing their best Clint Malarchuk impression (don't Google this) and bleeding out on the ice. If perhaps for no other reason than frozen blood is hard clean up.
At this point I’ve made my peace with all the ways an otherwise normal Sunday afternoon might be my last and shuffle out onto the ice only to promptly fall over. I’ve been told the blades — there are two in the rear of the sled — can be set wider for stability. Mine apparently are nearly as wide as they go. Given the enthusiasm in which gravity took hold, I'm not sure that was true.
Nevertheless, with my legs strapped to the sled and my head looking up to the rafters above, there is really only one way out of this.
The answer is to carefully, yet forcefully, stab (of course) the ice and lift yourself up. It’s not as hard as it sounds and also way harder than it needs to be.
“I didn’t think you’d get up that fast,” someone shouts.
Well, it's not like I had a choice.
It’s surprisingly easy-ish to get the hang of things once you get over the potential for self-inflicted stabbings or unintentional throat-slitting. In a way, the sled moves like a canoe. It’s a smooth trip as long as nobody is trying to knock you over. You just glide in whatever direction you are pointed, at whatever speed you’d like to travel.
I like the travel slow. Sometimes right into the wall.
When it comes to the members of Happy Valley Special Hockey, all of whom do not share my safety concerns, it must be a liberating experience. For the nearly 35 players, many of them are living their lives with various degrees of disabilities, but when they hit the ice, they're just hockey players. Most everything else is left behind.
The group, founded not long after Terry Pegula's gift to Penn State, boasts two separate types of teams. One focuses on more traditional hockey and the other takes part in sledge hockey. It's a tight knit group, split nearly 50/50 between men and women, all focused as much on personal growth as they are outreach.
"Hockey gives (members) opportunities to make friends, be ambassadors in the community, become good self-advocates, and raise awareness," says President and Director of Hockey Cynthia Wolf. "We get questions all the time from the skaters who are leaving the ice before our practices or waiting to go on after us, and we love to answer those questions and hopefully tear down barriers."
The team rents the ice nearly 20 sessions a season, not a cheap ticket considering it's one of two sheets of ice in town. But sponsorships ranging from the Pittsburgh Penguins to Labatt Blue have made it possible.
So the group continues to grow, and just last season they acquired custom jerseys. Their teams have branding and they have hit the ice with other special hockey teams in Pennsylvania. The Special Olympics doesn't recognize either as an official sport, so the community depends on itself for more official forms of public relationship and support. It's not competitive in the traditional definition of the word, at least not in State College, but the sense of togetherness and team is as strong as ever.
However, my shot is weak.
I’m reminded how bad I am at all of this after 15 minutes of just trying to get the puck off the ice. It doesn't really ever leave the surface unless you could consider fluttering incompetence flipping down the ice as a shot. So I try again and again. A girl skates on by, quicker than I could probably ever pull off without hurting myself, and flicks a shot towards the goal, giggling as she keeps going. I don’t blame her.
By the time I surrender, I’ve been skating around for 45 minutes approaching something approximating a mildly competent pace. It will be a long time before I’m taking contact. Looking at other sleds, they tell their own stories through the dents and scratches, like they’ve been down Fury Road and back again. Apparently sled hockey invites heavy hits at the highest levels because the threat of stabbing yourself wasn’t a big enough worry without introducing on-ice car crashes to the equation.
There is a risk of trying to make some cliche parallel between the time I spent flailing around and suddenly understanding a life spent overcoming obstacles that will never go away and were never asked for in the first place. It's a life of management as much as anything else. A life I couldn't imagine.
I could never know what that is like, I can only guess. But if a sport can blur or erase those hurdles and level the playing field for everyone, even those entering the sport at the most basic level, it seems like a sport worth playing.
So maybe strapping your legs in tight is a freedom after all.