Five hockey sticks were battling for the puck at once. Although the fan section was small, their screams could be heard throughout every angle of the ice rink.
“I’ve got it,” shouted the voice of what appeared to be Michael Habermann to his brother Chris Habermann, both on the Mountain Warriors team. Michael slammed the puck at the net with his stick.
Just as it looked like the Mountain Warriors would take the lead, the puck missed the net by a hairline.
The puck slid to the other end of the rink, and the players followed. Skates scraped off down the ice as both teams raced towards the other goal. However, these skates were not attached to feet; they were attached to sleds.
Sled hockey, sometimes pronounced “sledge” hockey, is a sport that can be played by both people with injuries that hinder the ability to play hockey on skates and those without injuries. The main difference between sled hockey and regular hockey is that sled hockey players push themselves in metal sleds with small hockey sticks to move around.
Sled hockey is also a family sport; on the Mountain Warriors team, three fathers play with their sons. Jim Habermann, one of these three fathers, coaches his sons Michael and Chris. Lori Habermann, wife of Jim and mother of Michael and Chris is a loyal fan.
“Sled hockey was something I could play with my family again after my injury. There’s not many sports you can play with your father,” Michael Habermann said.
Lori sat on the ice-cold bleachers in an ice rink in Ottawa, Canada watching Jeanie, one of the player’s service dog. It was only 10 in the morning on a Saturday, and Lori had already rushed off to the rink, helped unload a trailer full of hockey equipment, and now, almost watched an entire hockey game. This is not unusual for a tournament weekend.
Bundled in layers and huddled under a blanket with Chris Lazore, a mother of another one of the players, Lori watched the final minutes of the game. One of the players from the Mountain Warriors fell on the ice and did not get back up. The whistle blew. “Isn’t that your son, Michael?” Lazore asked.
“If Michael is seriously hurt, he’ll let me know. This is not the first time he’s been hurt, and it certainly won’t be his last,” Habermann said.
Jim Habermann has been coaching the boys since they were five. He coached them in baseball, and the boys also played football and basketball. Michael heard about sled hockey on the base where he was working and has been playing for five years. Jim has been an assistant coach to the team for four years. Chris has been playing for three years because he was deployed when the rest of his family started playing. Lori said her family has always done activities together.
Jim ran out onto the ice to assist his son, knowing Michael often punched when he came to again. Despite his leg injuries, Chris quickly rolled out of his sled to help his father and brother. When Michael woke up, Jim and Chris helped him walk off the ice in such an effortless way that only years of athletic experience together could have allowed them to perfect.
The possibility of injury is just as prevalent in sled hockey as it is in regular hockey, so good gear is important. Concussion helmets came out in December. A red sign appears on the back of one’s helmet if one hits their head hard enough for a concussion to be possible, which is what happened with Michael. Sleds are custom built to work the best for the players using them and cost $800 or more. Mountain Warriors Coach Mark McKenna said a lot of the gear for his team is old hockey gear donated from college hockey teams near their home base of Canton such as St. Lawrence, Clarkson, SUNY Potsdam, or SUNY Canton.
“I could not do this anywhere but the north country because of everyone’s love of hockey,” McKenna said.
It was close to 5:00, and the second and last game of the day was about to begin for the Mountain Warriors. McKenna and Jim gathered the team around to talk strategy. “Who’s going to go in for me?” Michael asked his dad and McKenna. Newest player and back-up goalie for the team Camron Danforth’s hand shot up.
Both coaches looked uncertain, and Danforth had only ridden in a sled once before. Seeing what was going on, Lori came over.
“Put him in,” she said. “All the guys were new at one point.”
Sled hockey is important for people with injuries because it gives them an outlet.
“I do it as my therapy. I was always active before my disabilities. When we got our disabilities, it was hard to get back into this active lifestyle, but with this we can,” Michael said.
Lori said she is happy her sons have a group of guys who have gone through similar experiences with injuries and disabilities.
“These guys tend to be closed off and don’t really talk about what happened because they’re afraid that people won’t understand. It’s almost like a support group,” Lori said.
“Three guys from our team told me without the team they would have committed suicide. That’s why I do it. If I can prevent someone from taking their lives, I’m going to do it,” McKenna said.
McKenna originally decided to start the Mountain Warriors sled hockey team when he was working out in the gym at Fort Drum, New York. A kid came in a wheel chair and could not reach the pull up bar, so he turned around and left. McKenna went to grab him, but the kid was too fast. McKenna went out and asked the manager at the gym if Fort Drum offered wheel chair basketball or sled hockey. The manager did not even know what sled hockey was. This motivated McKenna to talk to a commander and a physical therapist about starting a sled hockey team.
The Mountain Warriors completed their final game for the day: they won the first game and lost the second, meaning they will move on in the tournament. The entire team and their families went to dinner together. Despite it being a long, tiring day, their energy and laughter could be seen and heard throughout the entire restaurant. They looked like a large family.
“I consider everyone on my team as my family,” Michael said. “We’re all just hockey players.”