Sled Hockey Demo Kicks Off Paralympic Games for the 'Other' Blackhawks
IRVING PARK — To students from the Wilma Rudolph Learning Center, Patrick Byrne is every bit as awesome as Patrick Kane.
A gold medalist from the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City, Byrne captains the RIC Blackhawks sled hockey team, which put on a clinic for the youngsters Wednesday at Chicago's official kickoff for the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi.
Two members of the RIC Blackhawks squad — Brody Roybal and Kevin McKee — are competing in Russia for Team USA.
Sled hockey is one of more than a dozen adaptive sports promoted by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
"You can literally adapt anything," said Derek Daniels, manager of RIC's sports programs. "There's even adaptive surfing."
The Hawks practice twice a week at the McFetridge Sports Center, 3843 N. California Ave., where the Chicago Park District provides free ice time.
"I was never into sports before I lost my leg," said Byrne, who was injured in a construction accident in 1992.
Founding the hockey squad in 1998 "took me out of my shell," he said. "After you lose something, you think your life is over."
Sled hockey is played almost like "stand-up" hockey: the rink and goals are regulation-size, and games consist of three 15-minute periods. Top players, according to Byrne, can skate from hash mark to hash mark in five seconds.
The major difference: The "skates" are actually sleds affixed to blades, and players propel themselves forward with a pair of spiked sticks that are also used for passing and shooting.
"It's super important for them just to stay active," said Dan Tun, special recreation coordinator for the Chicago Park District, who coaches the team.
"I coach this same as able-bodied," he said. "It's pretty much the same game, except they can't skate backwards."
Unlike most adaptive sports, which are played wheelchair-to-wheelchair, sled hockey encourages full-on contact.
"It's body-to-body," said RIC Blackhawks rookie Matt Amos, who lost his leg by choice.
A bout with bone cancer at age 15 left Amos with a metal knee replacement.
"I was too active for the knee replacement and snapped the tendon several times," he emailed DNAinfo Chicago. "I told my doctor I wanted to amputate the leg so that I could be more active.... Now I bike, run, ski and do pretty much anything I want on my prosthetic."
Amos met Byrne at his prosthetist's office, where the captain immediately went into recruiting mode.
"He was like, 'Holy s---, you've got Popeye arms. You've got to come out for the team,'" said Amos.
The Hawks play in the Midwest Sled Hockey League against teams from St. Louis, Colorado and San Antonio and are prepping for this weekend's championship tournament in Hoffman Estates.
"There's good parity between the four teams," said Byrne. "It's never a blowout, for some reason."
Apart from the competitive aspect of the sport, it's the camaraderie that draws most players to sled hockey.
"It's great to get out there and stay in shape, but it's also about being around other disabled people," said Chuck Wyder, now in his second year with the RIC Blackhawks.
In the years after the accident that left him a double amputee, Wyder, then living in Cincinnati, didn't know a single other disabled person.
"This has opened up life," he said of joining the team, and not just in terms of learning to play sled hockey.
"You see how other people do things like handle their chair," Wyder said.
For students at Wilma Rudolph, a CPS school that exclusively enrolls children with physical and cognitive disabilities, getting out on the ice Wednesday served much the same purpose as it does for the adults.
"It's great for our kids to be exposed to recreation and to access facilities in their communities," said Jim Madden, a gym teacher at Wilma Rudolph.
Of equal importance, he said, is for the children "to see people in wheelchairs like they are getting out and enjoying sports."
"It's great just to see how each one reacts to the ice," Charlene Clay, a teacher at Wilma Rudolph, said of her charges.
Some children immediately asked to return to the bench, while others took to the sport like the next Patrick Byrne.
"The thing about hockey is you either love it or you hate it," Byrne said. "If we can get one kid hooked, today is worth it."
Catch the RIC Blackhawks in action this weekend at the Hoffman Estates Park District Community Center Triphahn Ice Arena at 6:15 p.m. Friday, and 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday.
NBC will broadcast a number of Paralympic sled hockey games on its cable sports network.