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INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Sled hockey was Wirt's salvation

by on May 16, 2014 10:39 AM

• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Mike Berzansky

Sled hockey did a lot for Josh Wirt.

It gave him back his life after a 1994 car accident permanently took away the use of his legs.

But it’s a two-way street.

Wirt did a lot for sled hockey, too.

He was a pioneer, winning a Paralympic gold medal in 2002 as a member of the team that would eventually popularize the sport in the United States.

He has spent the years since giving back, helping other players while recruiting new ones to the game.

Wirt, who grew up in Brush Valley, will be the first person inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame for accomplishments as a disabled athlete, and he will be honored with seven others at Sunday’s induction ceremony.

In 1998, at the Shriners Hospital in Erie, nurse Sue Birkmire suggested to a 13-year-old Josh that he try sled hockey, a modified version of ice hockey that allows those who have a physical disability to play.

Most standard rules of ice hockey are followed, and players sit on sleds, propelling themselves with short sticks.

At first, he was skeptical.

“I went to United (High School). They didn’t have hockey, and, if I couldn’t play it, I didn’t really take a big interest in it,” Wirt said.

“He was always good at anything he ever tried when he was younger,” Josh’s mother, Karen, said. “He excelled at every sport he ever tried. “We drove to Erie one weekend and we tried it, and it was just like every other sport. He just excelled. He got on that ice, and that was what really made him believe in himself. It was Josh again.”

It had been four years since Wirt was paralyzed from the waist down.

“Before he played hockey, he wasn’t very outgoing,” Josh’s mother said. “You always got that feeling he was not going to be able to do any sports that he had done before. He wouldn’t make eye contact, he wouldn’t talk to people, he wouldn’t even talk about his own disability. If someone would ask him how it happened, he was very hard to get to even speak up. He just didn’t know how to talk about, it and he was very backward about it. Once he started excelling (at sled hockey), he started to get more confident in himself as a person. Once he found his way onto the national team and then the Paralympic team, his whole confidence just beamed — as a person, not just as a player.”

“After the accident, I was, I don’t want to say depressed, but I was certainly not myself anymore,” Wirt said. “I was so into sports — baseball, basketball. I loved to be active when I was able-bodied. When the accident happened I was like, What am I going to do now? I can’t play sports anymore. When I found sled hockey, it gave me my confidence back. It gave me my life back, basically.”

o o o

Josh started playing with the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins. His first tournament came in April 1999 in Kitchener, Ontario, where he caught the eye of Rick Middleton, coach of the U.S. national team. At age 14, Wirt became the youngest player ever on the squad.

The U.S. went to the six-team World Cup tournament in 2000 and placed sixth.

“We were terrible in 2000,” Wirt said.

But the team improved a lot in two years. Still green, Wirt continued to pick up the game while ramping up his training. Lance Holupka at United High School volunteered to be Josh’s trainer and worked with him four days a week. Josh went to Harmarville for practice one night a week.

“I went from playing with a bunch of little kids to playing at that level,” Wirt said. “That’s quite a big jump. It’s like going from low-A ball in baseball to playing in the big leagues. To do that was a huge adjustment — just a lot of hard work and a lot of off-ice training to be able to keep up. I don’t think it was ever intimidating or anything. It was just a hard transition to go from one extreme to the other.”

At the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City, the U.S. swept its five preliminary-round games and knocked off 1998 gold medalist Norway in the final.

“I guess the whole thing was kind of a blur,” Wirt said. “You look back on it and it seems like it was yesterday, but it was 12 years ago now. It was definitely the most unreal, greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life. Life-changing. From that day forward, they can never take away from what you accomplished.”

At age 17, Wirt was a gold medalist.

“It was definitely cool to be able to roll into school one day with a gold medal hanging around your neck,” he said. “That’s something not a lot of people get to do. It’s definitely something I’m proud of, and I don’t really know how to describe it. It was just awesome.”

Sled hockey was still in its infancy in the country, though. USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport in the U.S., wasn’t even sponsoring the national team.

“We all had to fund ourselves,” Wirt said. “If you couldn’t afford to fly city to city where we practiced and stay at hotels and everything like that, you couldn’t be on the team. That’s a huge difference from now. Right after we won the gold medal in ’02, USA Hockey heard our story, fell in love with what we were doing and really jumped on board and supported us after that. Now, not only do they pay for everybody’s travel and things like that, they also give guys a per diem.”

“For a lot of people I know in the sled hockey community, we really regard that team as the kick-starter for USA sled hockey,” said Dan McCoy, a 2014 Paralympic gold medalist from Pittsburgh. “That was the first gold medal to ever be won by USA sled hockey, so we really regard the guys on that team as the founding fathers of the whole organization. The sport’s grown tremendously since then.”

Wirt, however, didn’t stick around to see the sport grow first-hand. He graduated from United in 2003 and attended the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Two-hour drives to practice while going through college just wasn’t in the cards.

Still, sled hockey had done wonders for Josh. He learned he wasn’t alone — not an easy thing to understand when you’re a teenager, and a disabled one at that, in rural western Pennsylvania.

“It was definitely nice to make some friends who were going through the same type of things as I was,” he said. “I still had my friends from school, but they were all able-bodied, regular kids. They didn’t know what I was going through. It was nice to know people who were going through the same stuff. You’d talk to them about things that you wouldn’t talk to other people about.”

o o o

In 2008, McCoy was looking to advance his game. He’d played with the Penguins since age 5, around the same time when Josh discovered the game. Like Wirt before him, McCoy dreamed of becoming a Paralympian.

Dan’s mother, Angie, knew just who to call.

“She called me and pretty much begged me to come back and help and show him how to get that far,” Wirt said. “I was working at the time, but it was a job that I just absolutely hated, so I said I’m going to give this a go and see if I can get back (to the Paralympics), too.”

The game he loved had grown quite a bit in the years since he’d won gold.

“When I first started, it was pretty much you had to go to Canada to play,” he said. “There weren’t very many teams at all in the United States, so, like once a year we’d go to Canada and we’d play a tournament up there, and that was pretty much our season. … It’s a lot easier now. Philly has a team, Buffalo has a team, Ohio has a team. There a lot of teams that are relatively close that you don’t have to go super-far. It would be nice if Pittsburgh had three or four teams that could play against each other, but the sport’s not that far yet.”

Wirt continued to mentor McCoy and the other players, and the Penguins added an adult-level team.

They went a combined 31-0-1 in Mid-American Great Lakes Sled Hockey League play in 2010-11 and ’11-12. Wirt made it up to the U.S. Developmental team, a feeder squad for the national team, while his friend got a spot on the big club.

In March of this year, McCoy and the Americans claimed gold in Sochi, Russia.

“I’m sure he and Danny would’ve loved to go to this Paralympics together,” Josh’s mother said, “but unfortunately Josh wasn’t at that point. But it certainly made him a proud person to know he had helped Danny move along in his career as well.”

This time, it was different. McCoy’s team wasn’t the first, after all. The games were televised. PBS made a popular documentary about the team. Coming home, McCoy was a local celebrity.

“You look at Twitter and you’ll see those guys all have well over 1,000 followers,” Wirt said. “I’m sitting here at like 100. Nobody knows who I am. And that’s cool. I love it. It’s awesome to see these guys get a lot of attention. People recognize the game now. Ten, 15 years ago, if I told somebody I played sled hockey, they’d be like, ‘What the heck’s that?’ You tell somebody now, they’re like, ‘That’s awesome. I saw that on TV. Do you know Dan McCoy?’”

“It’s really cool to see, from when I started, how the sport’s grown,” McCoy said. “What Josh went through, I can really relate to that now, and I’ve talked to him about it. Even though I’ve done it now myself, I still ask him how similar it is and what kind of training he did and everything like that. It’s a cool thing to have in common with him, and I’m really proud to have followed in his footsteps.”

o o o

Now McCoy is spreading word about the game and trying to recruit players, as Wirt has done for so long.

“Josh will probably say the same thing: Once you’ve achieved the level of the Paralympics and winning a gold medal, that’s really what’s important, growing the sport and making sure that players and people with disabilities have an outlet like we were fortunate enough to have,” McCoy said.

“When I was growing up, he was always there to push me and my teammates. The last few years I’ve been trying to follow in his footsteps, making the rounds in developing players around here. I try to give back that way. He really helped me out, and he helped me realize that was a huge part in being a Paralympian.”

These days, Wirt lives in Edinboro and runs a photography business with his wife, the former Katie Kester, also a United graduate.

“I’m pretty much retired now,” he said. “I hurt my back kind of last year. … I just got to the point where I’m ready to settle down and not beat myself up so much.”

“He’s at the part where he thinks he’s older, and it is difficult,” his mother said. “You figure they use their shoulders all the time. It’s just a constant battle with your health. He’s not that old, but in his mindset, he feels like he’s at the end of his career as that goes. … I’d love to see him go coach, but I don’t think it’s in his path at this time.”

For now, though, sled hockey has a great ambassador in Josh Wirt.

JOSH WIRT, at a glance...

Age: 29

Residence: Edinboro

Family: Wife, Katie

Occupation: Runs a photography business

Career highlights: Played for the U.S. national sled hockey team from 1999 to 2002. Won a gold medal in the 2002 Paralympic Games. At 14, was the youngest member ever and the first teenager to play for the national team. Was the first teenager to win a Paralympic gold medal in sled hockey. Served as captain for the U.S. Developmental team in the the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.

Eli Nellis is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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