Sled Hockey Team Includes Players with Ehlers-Danlos
Pennsylvania athletes with Ehlers-Danlos are hooked on Sled Hockey. The team will travel to Boston to participate in the Disabled Hockey Festival. Teammates enjoy being able to play a sport without having to think about their disability.
Don’t let the perfectly-pink color scheme of Anna Lehman’s sled fool you. When the 16-year-old athlete from Annville hits the ice, only a tactical check from a fellow competitor can slow her down. Most fail.
Across the ice, Joseph Yarish from Fannettsburg fancies his role as team enforcer. There’s nothing quite like slamming into the boards and, perhaps, flying to the net and scoring a few goals. In that order.
Lehman, Yarish and a dozen of their teammates are proud representatives of the Palmyra Black Knights Sled Hockey team, a rising outfit eagerly preparing for its biggest weekend since forming in 2011.
That means there is no time to waste on words like Spina bifida, Cerebral Palsy or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Not when there’s a fresh patch of ice to play on. Besides, the Black Knights are bound for Boston next week to participate in the 10th annual USA Disabled Hockey Festival.
All athletes love to compete. The Black Knights are no different.
MIKE AND MIKE
Head coach Mike Kreiser and assistant Mike Willeman both admitted they were a bit nervous about their new team, which started as a Hershey Jr. Bears affiliate before moving to Palmyra’s Klick Lewis Arena last season. The feeling did not last long.
“Mike and I were hesitant, not knowing what to expect from the kids, not knowing their capabilities or how far we could push them,” said Kreiser, an accomplished player and Level 3 coach with USA Hockey.
“After a couple of practices, they were just hockey players. They were just approaching the game a little differently. I’ve coached a lot of different teams on different levels and this is the most dedicated, well-behaved team I’ve ever coached.”
With only minor adjustments due to the specialized equipment, sled hockey operates under the same rules as professional hockey. Players propel their sleds, which ride on a pair of skates, with two scaled-down hockey sticks that allow the player to pass, shoot and maneuver.It’s not hard to spot the hockey sled belonging to 16-year-old Anna Lehman, a member of the Palmyra Black Knights Sled Hockey Team.
As a player’s skill level increases, the skates can be adjusted to a more streamlined width. A smaller width means additional speed and sharper turns.
“It didn’t take long to see what it meant to the kids. The skill level in the beginning was very novice,” said Willeman, also a Level 3 coach. “We do have some players that have weaker upper body strength, but they are working on it. It’s just amazing to see their competitive spirit.”
Audrey Waltzer of Port Royal, part of the youth (ages 5-18) team headed to Boston, is just one shining example of that spirit. Originally in need of a pusher – teams are allowed to incorporate able-bodied players to merely push those athletes that need a little extra assistance – Waltzer is a much different player after her first introduction to the sport.
“Audrey started playing and couldn’t get herself started on the ice. Her strength just wasn’t there,” said Willeman.
“She’s pretty quiet, but she made it a point not long ago to tell me that she’s doing therapy twice a week to get stronger. She’s having so much fun out there now. It just blew me away. We’ve seen it time and again, hockey can change your life when a kid gets involved. To see it do that for her is golden.”
Black Knights Diretor Sal Montagna has two sons, Mark and Ryan, associated with the youth sled hockey team. He helped organize the program with Stephanie Reighard, who has since moved to Johnstown. Along with a dedicated group of parents, Montagna makes this opportunity possible.
Counting sleds, sticks, helmets and pads, it typically costs about $1,200 to fully outfit a single player. Through fundraising, donations, sponsorships and last year’s celebrity game, the group raised enough to cover the cost of every player.
“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is have it no cost. Our participants obviously have other things going on,” said Montagna. We don’t want families to have any additional financial burden.”
That doesn’t mean Montagna and the Knights aren’t thinking big.
The Delaware Valley Hockey League currently boasts eight teams, including three from New Jersey and the Hammerheads from Northeast Philadelphia. If all goes as planned, the Black Knights will enter the league next season and enjoy a regular schedule.
So far, a lack of players and financial constraints have limited the youth team to just a few games, plus last October’s trip to a tournament in Johnstown. The single goal that Palmyra posted in tournament play only stoked the fire in the players.
“If you ask any of these kids who are out there, it’s just about being part of a team, being able to play a sport,” Montagna said. “Every other sport, they are just not allowed to play. It gives them a chance to be able to go out on the ice and play. They don’t have to think about their disability.”
TO BOSTON WE GO
On this particular Saturday in March, Anna Lehman knows she’ll be a little sore over the next 24 hours. With a lot of fun mixed in, Kreiser and Willeman put the team through a brisk 90-minute practice.
“Our arms are regular skaters’ legs. The next day my shoulders will be hurting, my arms will be hurting,” said Lehman, who became an early Philadelphia fan after watching the Flyers with her grandmother. “It helps that when you fall over you don’t have far to fall. You just have to go out there and have fun.”
Like most of her teammates, Lehman was excited about watching the Paralympic Games in Sochi, where Team USA claimed a gold medal. “Right now, it’s only for the guys in the Olympics but, hopefully, that is going to change soon,” she said.
Partners in crime Yarish and Carter Powell from Harrisburg have more immediate goals, like slamming a few more sleds into the boards.
“It’s about having fun, scoring a lot of goals,” Said Powell about the upcoming showcase event. “And playing rough.”
To find more information about how to join or assist the Palmyra Black Knights Sled Hockey Team, visit www.palmyrablackknights.org.
A dedicated group of hockey enthusiasts is changing the lives of kids involved in their program.
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