Sled Hockey Scores Goal With Wounded Warriors

By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, July 6, 2007 - Army Spc. Hollis Richardson glides across the rink, balancing his body on just a slab of metal and two thin blades. He digs two sticks into the ice, kicking up a light mist as he rushes to propel himself to the puck. Veering to the right, he evades an opponent and knocks the puck to a teammate just as he collides with another player, metal slashing metal.

He quickly rights himself, gains balance and glides back into the game.

Like his time on the ice, life has been a balancing act for Richardson since he was injured just over a year ago. He was patrolling in Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his right leg and shrapnel riddled his left. The medics were racing to get him on a stretcher and out of danger when he was shot in the back. He suffered massive nerve damage to his right leg and some nerve damage to his left. He also fractured his pelvic bone.

Richardson has spent the last year recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center here, learning how to walk again and tinkering with car engines in his free time. He heard about a sled hockey team from his buddies at the hospital and decided to try it out, although he was a self-proclaimed non-athlete.

"I never played sports before except for some soccer as a kid," the 23-year-old said, a little out of breath after a two-hour practice at the Ice Center at Northwoods here. "It's been fun. I plan to keep it up; I have my own sled now and my name on my gear."

Richardson and his teammates, a mix of wounded warriors and local players, make up the San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Team. The sport is a modified version of ice hockey, altered to accommodate physical disabilities. Players propel themselves across the ice with sticks a third of regulation size while riding metal-frame sleds balanced on two skate blades. Aside from the equipment, the rules are about the same, as are the wrenching collisions and puck battles on the ice.

The team's coach, Lonnie Hannah, is well known in the sled hockey scene; he was part of the U.S. sled hockey team that won the gold medal at the 2002 Paralympic Games and bronze in 2006.

"The sport is great therapy, not just physically but mentally," said Hannah, also a former national champion speed skater. "It gets the guys out of the hospital and into society."

Hannah speaks from experience. He was injured in a work-related accident more than 20 years ago. But rather than being bound to a wheelchair, Hannah switched from speed skating to adaptive sports. He played wheelchair tennis and basketball before he discovered a passion for sled hockey.

"In the hospital, people are there to help, to do for you," Hannah said. "But at the rink, you're carrying and putting on your equipment, doing everything for yourself. It builds resilience."

Like the coach, referees also are volunteers. They officiate games and help facilitate weekly practices.

One of the referees stepped onto the rink near the end of a recent afternoon practice and sped across the ice with the ease of a lifelong skater. He moved the puck from the edges of the rink to keep the game going, as he joked with players to keep the mood light. The referee is a familiar face on and off the rink for the players, since he's also the commander of Fort Sam Houston.

"There's a great sense of camaraderie," said Maj. Gen. Russell Czerw, who tries to squeeze as much ice time as he can into his busy schedule. "Everyone is out here working together; the sport brings a sense of team and unity.

"It's also an exhausting sport. Not so much for these guys, but for the ones who play them and aren't used to the game," he added with a smile.

Since sled hockey is not a common sport in San Antonio, teammates play each other, or "stand-up" hockey players take a seat for a game. But the game is tough for players who are accustomed to a different version of the sport.

"They had no problem beating us," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason Hess, member of the San Antonio Men of War, a local ice hockey team that played the Rampage on June 16; Hess' team lost 3-1. "It's a lot more challenging than it looks. It takes a lot of strength and balance to play on a sled."

The teams' coordinator, Janis Roznowski, is working to beef up opposition for the team. The creator of the nonprofit group Operation Comfort, Roznowski was the driving force behind the sled hockey team. She decided to start a local team after taking a group of wounded warriors on a ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, in 2004, where they got their first glimpse of the sport.

"The guys' eyes lit up," Roznowski said. "I thought it would be great to start a team here."

What started out as a few players knocking around a puck has grown into an organized team with national aspirations. "The San Antonio Rampage (local professional ice hockey team) adopted us, donating equipment, and San Antonio Parks and Recreation has been a great help," said Roznowski, who continues to help the players from Brooke Army Medical Center with transportation and funding for rink time. "Our next step is to build the team up and start traveling to other cities for games so we can be competitive on a national level."

In the meantime, the sled hockey team welcomes new players and has an added enticement for aspiring sled hockey enthusiasts.

"You get to go out on the ice and take out your aggression," said retired Sgt. Chris Leverkuhn, an amputee who was injured in Iraq. "I love the sport. It's a great way to keep busy and experience something new."

(Elaine Wilson works at the Fort Sam Houston Public Information Office.)
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