Sled hockey lets players put disabilities on ice
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org May 7, 2012 10:08PM
Jack Lyle (right), 6, of Chicago's Mount Greenwood community skates on the ice with team USA Patriots sled hockey player Brody Roybal at Leafs Ice Centre in West Dundee Friday, May 4, 2012. Lyle has cerebral palsy and plays for the Chicago Hornets youth sled hockey team. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 9, 2012 8:04AM
Jack Lyle pulls his jersey down over his shoulder pads.
He pauses to run his hand along the gelled tuft of hair atop his head before strapping on his helmet.
Then, with a little help from his dad, the 6-year-old maneuvers his legs into his custom-made sled, and he’s off, across the ice like a puck under orders from Wayne Gretzky.
Jack just finished up his first full season of sled hockey, and already his parents see signs of improvement.
“He’s always had good upper-body strength,” said his mom, Alison Lyle. “So this sport is perfect for him.”
Perfect because it lets Jack apply his talent for analyzing a situation and devising a strategy. Perfect because everyone else on the rink can’t skate with their legs either.
Jack, who lives in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, went to his first hockey game a year and a half ago and a community broke out.
“He gets so much from this sport,” Lyle said. “Friends, support, socialization, plus good, old-fashion competition.
“It’s really a blessing,” she said.
On the day they met their infant son in a Baby House in Esik, Kazakstan, Alison and Jeff Lyle knew something was wrong.
“I thought he was paralyzed,” she said.
But doctors back home assured her that Jack’s reticence to use his legs was likely due to a condition called “orphan delay.” They also said he would grow out of it.
Finally, after months of insisting, the Lyles were referred to an orthopedic doctor who diagnosed cerebral palsy.
Jack couldn’t walk at all before he had selective dorsal rhizotomy, a procedure in which nerve endings are clipped. Now, his determination to get around is made possible with the help of crutches. And his desire to play on a team is fulfilled on the ice.
Jack is the youngest player on the Chicago-based Hornets youth sled hockey team.
“He loves being able to move at a fast pace,” said his dad, a Chicago firefighter in the Chatham community.
Sled (“sledge” as it’s referred to outside the United States) hockey was invented by a Swedish rehabilitation center in the early 1960s. Most typical ice hockey rules apply. The equipment is different, however. Players are strapped into specially designed sleds that sit on top of two hockey skate blades. Each player gets two sticks, which have metal picks on the butt end enabling them to get traction and propel themselves.
The Hornets’ equipment and ice time are paid for through fundraisers organized by USA Hockey, said J.J. O’Connor, who chairs the disabled section for USA Hockey. They have played at a number of facilities in the Chicago area, including Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood.
Sled hockey is one of four special-needs hockey categories in the United States. Others are hockey for the deaf, for standing amputees, and for people with cognitive issues, such as autism.
O’Connor was an avid player until an accident on the ice when he was 16 resulted in a broken neck. Today, he is wheelchair-bound.
“Sports in general is a wonderful life experience. It teaches wonderful life skills,” he said. “That is expounding for people with disabilities.”
The opportunity to compete in something physical builds confidence and encourages determination and teamwork, he said.
In all, more than 2,300 individuals participate on special teams across the country, O’Connor said.
The Hornets squad is a training team. Players come from all over the Chicago area. Some are super serious, aspiring to make the national team. Others simply practice with the other players, trying to develop or hone skills.
The season runs from September through April. Most of the games are charity-based. Opponents come with a range of abilities. The Hornets have played against high school hockey teams, even against NHL All-Stars last fall.
“The pros had a hard time skating in sleds,” O’Connor said.
“It’s not easy, not at all,” said Michelle Roybal, of Northlake. Her son, Brody, plays on the Chicago-area men’s team. But he got his start on the Hornets.
Sometimes parents are invited to suit up after a game and give sled hockey a whirl.
“It is much harder than it looks, and it looks hard,” Roybal said.
Alison Lyle said, “What I like most about this is how nurturing and supportive everyone is.”
At one point, Brody Roybal was in Jack’s place. He was the youngest player on the Hornets.
This summer, the 13-year-old plans to try out for the national team. Yet when he sees little Jack Lyle take to the ice, he skates alongside him, offering tips and guidance.
“Brody started out just like Jack did, and the older kids helped him along,” his mom said. “Now he’s doing the same thing for Jack.”
Jack, a bright, precocious boy who also likes to play the piano and chess, says hockey is fun because he gets to do something he can’t ordinarily do: move fast.
Alison and Jeff homeschool Jack and his sister, Ava, who also is 6 and also was adopted from Kazakstan.
“Jack went with us when we picked up Ava,” his mom said. “He was a big comfort to his sister. It’s scary for a 2-year-old to go to a new home.”
Jack is a very gentle, thoughtful boy, Alison said. Even when his baby brother, Luke, picks a brawl with him, Jack never fights back.
“I don’t want to hurt him,” Jack said.
Though he seems mature beyond his years, Jack — like most little boys — has his frivolous moments.
As he peels off his hockey gear, he slides a hand across his head.
“Hey, look, my hair’s still sticking up,” he said to his mom, who smiled and said, reassuringly, “Yes it is. Good thing we put extra gel in it this morning, right?”
For more information on sled hockey, email J.J. O’Connor at email@example.com