The sweeping sound of skates cutting ice rang through Glacier Ice Rink on Friday afternoon. The clacking of pucks and hockey stick blades sporadically cracked in the arena.
An adaptive hockey clinic, put on by Glacier Ice Rink, Eagle Mount Therapeutic Recreation in Great Falls, the University of Montana’s New Direction Wellness Center and USA Disabled Hockey brought bunches of people to the rink Friday afternoon.
Sled hockey is a Paralympic sport and is played all around the world. As its name suggests, it is hockey played while strapped to a sled. The sled is a plastic seat attached to an aluminum frame that extends forward where the legs can be strapped to a footrest. Two hockey blades bolted to the bottom of the sled provide the connection to the ice while the driver uses two shortened sticks with metal picks attached to their handles to maneuver on the ice.
Molly Blair is the gym coordinator at the University of Montana’s New Directions Wellness Center and has been for the past 15 years. She moved around urgently, shifting people and material while chatting to volunteers and participants alike.
“We’re trying to bring outdoor recreation and sport to people who don’t do it usually,” Blair said once things had quieted down momentarily.
Friday’s clinic was the second event put on at Glacier involving sleds, but people are hoping that they don’t stop anytime soon.
“The past several years we’ve been trying to bring inclusive, adaptive sports to Missoula,” Blair said.
This clinic at Glacier Ice Rink was being put on with help from a Foundation for Community Health grant awarded to the New Direction Wellness Center and was part of a combined push to bring sled hockey to Missoula.
People milled about in the front of the rink, moving carefully around the long forms of hockey sleds sliding around the ice. Missoula Rural Fire Local 2457 and the Missoula Fire Department Local 271 had multiple volunteers either skating standing up or in sleds themselves, blitzing around the ice and offering encouragement to new riders.
Chris Mohr from Missoula Rural Fire said there’s a strong background of hockey in Missoula. The fire departments in Missoula are deeply competitive when it comes to hockey, playing in their yearly charity Fire on Ice games.
“We like to play each other,” he said.
Cooper Berry, an engineer for MRF Local 2457, said firefighters would be joining a sled hockey scrimmage during an intermission of a Missoula Junior Bruins game that was scheduled for Friday night.
Sherene Ricci was one of the people enjoying the freedom of the ice Friday. Locked into her sled and wearing a required caged helmet, she moved around the ice with the ease of a ski instructor, just one of her skill sets.
“I get a chance to come out a couple times a year and get on a sled,” Ricci said. “I’ve done it four or five times including a workshop.”
Ricci loves the feeling of skating, an activity that reminded her of being a kid in Missoula during the winter when everything felt like a playground.
“It was a powerful moment when I got on the ice for the first time skating in 20 years,” Ricci said.
She lost her right leg after a 10-year battle with cancer, which hampered her ability to do athletics. She enjoys sled hockey for “the sense of freedom, gliding around the ice and it's fun and fast."
Ricci wasn’t into hockey before she was introduced to sled hockey, “but it catches your attention when you have a disability and need adaptive equipment.”
She remembers watching the U.S. Paralympic squad win the first back-to-back gold medals in sled hockey at Sochi while she and some friends were watching the game at the Claim Jumper Casino in Missoula. “It was exciting to see the U.S. on an Olympic level with disabled athletes, getting the exposure we deserved.”