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ELI NELLIS: Sled hockey teaches that nothing really is out of reach

on March 29, 2013 11:00 AM

With all due respect to those I have covered in my time with The Indiana Gazette, the hockey players I spent last weekend with are some of the most resilient, inspirational athletes I have ever encountered.

I spent the weekend at the USA Disabled Hockey Festival in West Chester with the Sitting Bulls, a sled hockey team based in Johnstown, which draws players from the surrounding region, including two players from Indiana County.

Sled hockey is a version of ice hockey designed to allow those with physical disabilities to participate.

Sled hockey follows most typical ice hockey rules, but players sit in specially designed sleds that rest atop two ice skate blades. Players propel themselves with two shortened hockey sticks with metal picks on the butt ends.

One of the local players is my 17-year-old brother, Cameron, who has limited mobility on his left side.

The team’s other Indiana County player is Gregory Bartholomew, 11, the son of Steven and Jodi Bartholomew, of Blairsville.

When I made the trip to Cameron’s first tournament with the team, in Columbus, Ohio, in late January, I was told the Sitting Bulls routinely showed up, had their fun on the ice, but often were lucky to go home with even a single win. This time they picked up a few wins and managed to play deep into the weekend event.

At the national tournament last weekend, I was told the competition was stiff, but the Bulls claimed second place in their division.

Of course, this type of success is just a footnote to the larger achievements this remarkable group of kids has made, persevering despite a wide variety of impairments.

Sled hockey has given these kids the opportunity to know what it’s like to play on a team, to work toward a common goal and to give of oneself for the other players on their side. They’ve made friends. They’ve had fun. They’ve seen the value each and every one of them brings to the team, and it’s been pretty cool to watch.

“Just from his experience,” team president Russell White said of his son, Russ, “it brought him out of his shell, because he would never associate with other kids in other sports. Then when he got hooked up with doing sled hockey, he came out of his shell and he talks to everybody. He’s better in school. And just knowing that you can play a sport, because when you follow the Penguins and you can’t skate … now that he does sled hockey he associates one with the other. Just by being associated with the organization, just watching the kids, how they smile and get along, they know one another and it’s just like a normal team of kids out there. They’re the same.”

The Sitting Bulls will hold their fundraiser game Saturday, April 6, at their home rink, Planet Ice, in Johnstown. Doors open at 1:30 p.m., and the game begins at 2:45.

“Mainly it’s for us to get donations,” White said, “because other hockey organizations, they have to pay to play hockey. Our organization doesn’t charge for kids to play. We donate the equipment, our sleds, and we charge nothing. It’s just for the families to come out and let their kids play without worrying about the financial burden.”

I was lucky enough to grab a spot to play against the kids in the fundraiser game. The opposing team is to be made up of mentors and educators, and my joke has been that I’ll educate them on the ice.

Truth is, they’ve already taught me a lot more.

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