Hockey is one of the four most popular sports in the United States, and with good reason. It’s fast-paced, engaging, and thrilling for both players and fans. For a long time, hockey was limited to able-bodied athletes. Now, a variation of hockey known as sledge or sled hockey has made its way into the Paralympics, opening up the game to an entirely new group of talented players.
Sled hockey, as it’s called in the United States, is a variation on the game of hockey and uses most of the same rules. Players with a lower body disability use a metal sled to get around on the ice. The sleds have two blades on the bottom and are raised high enough above the ice to allow a puck to pass underneath. Instead of only one stick, sled hockey players use two shorter sticks. Each stick has an end with spikes and an end with a flat blade. The spiked end is used to propel the player across the ice, while the bladed end is used to direct the puck.
Sled hockey was developed in the 1960s when a group of patients at a Stockholm, Sweden, rehabilitation center wanted to find a way to be able to continue playing hockey despite their physical disabilities. They invented the first sledge, a modified metal sled, and the design remains largely unchanged today. By 1969, Sweden had a sled hockey league of five different teams, a trend quickly followed by other European countries.
The games adhere the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation with modifications for the sledge and sticks. In 2010, sled hockey rules were changed to allow both men and women to play on the same team. Sled hockey reopens the ice to those who would otherwise be unable to enjoy it, but it has benefits that go beyond the game. Players must use their upper body to balance and propel themselves during play, which conditions the muscles and improves overall balance when not on the ice. It’s also a great way to increase coordination, dexterity, and strength.
The first United States sled hockey team was formed in 1990, and sled hockey was formally integrated into the Paralympic Games in 1994. In 2002, the U.S. team claimed a gold medal for the first time as part of the games held in Salt Lake City. The 2006 Paralympics only netted the Americans a bronze medal, but gold was reclaimed in both 2010 and 2014. In 2014, the sport made history by being the first Paralympic event to be broadcast live by an American TV network. Several members of the current U.S. team are military veterans or former hockey players, and for them, sled hockey is a way to demonstrate to themselves and to young athletes that a physical disability doesn’t have to mean the end of the game.