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Northeast Passage Wildcats compete in Exeter sled hockey tournament

Though a cold Saturday morning is ideal for a game of hockey, at the rinks in Exeter on Saturday, March 4 and Sunday, March 5, not a single ice skate was seen. Rather, metal sleds and shortened sticks with metal picks attached to the butt end littered the space next to the boards near the locker rooms.

This was the scene at the competitive sled hockey tournament held this past weekend in Exeter. The Northeast Passage Wildcats, who are affiliated with the University of New Hampshire’s College of Health and Human Services, played in the 2017 Sports4Life Sled Hockey Classic. 

Northeast Passage is an organization that is partnered with UNH to help people with disabilities play the sports they love.

According to its website, the mission of Northeast Passage is to, “… create an environment where individuals with disabilities can enjoy recreation…and independence as their non-disabled peers.”

Northeast Passage offers a wide array of sports for people to take part in. The sled hockey division is also affiliated with USA Hockey.

According to the USA Hockey website, sled hockey was invented in Sweden in the 1960s for disabled individuals that still wanted to take part in the sport. The sport has since changed and grown to the level of an international sport with recognition in the Paralympics. Team USA beat Team Russia in Sochi in 2014 for the gold medal.

Sled hockey is meant for people with physical and mental disabilities, but is played with all the same rules as stand-up hockey, including body checking. Players are strapped into a sled with two skate blades on the bottom. The players hold two sticks, instead of one, with a metal spike on one end of the stick that the players use to propel the sled forward. The other end of the stick has the regular curvature of a hockey stick for passing and shooting the puck.

The Wildcats had three games on Saturday. The first was against the Columbus Blue Jackets, next was the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins and the last game was against the USA Warriors, a team comprised of military veterans who were wounded in combat. The semifinals and finals were played on Sunday, also in Exeter.

Senior recreation management and policy (RMP) major and Northeast Passage intern Dan Santos has been involved with the organization since before becoming a UNH student. He also plays defense for the Wildcats.

Santos has femoral hypoplasia, a disability he was born with that causes his femurs to be smaller than normal and impairs the use of his legs. He uses a wheelchair and crutches to move around in his very active life. Growing up, Santos played baseball and other sports until one of his friends introduced him to sled hockey when he was 10 years old. Santos has been hooked ever since.

Santos was recruited to come to UNH to play sled hockey. He said that when he came for a visit, he knew that this school was the place for him. Santos just got into the RMP department last year.

“I definitely found what I’m passionate about, which is helping those with disabilities live their lives to the ultimate quality of life and play recreation sports,” Santos said.

“I always tell people sled hockey is just ice hockey sitting down,” Santos added. “It’s got the same speed, the same intensity, the same rules, the same strategies…”

Santos continued to say that people who come out to watch are always impressed by what the players can do on the ice. He also said that the teams that competed in the tournament are some of the best in the country. Santos expected all of the games to be close, and was correct, as the Wildcats edged Columbus with a 3-2 win on Saturday.

Wildcats head coach and UNH alumna Bill Stewart said that the director of Northeast Passage gave him a call and thought it would be good if someone with a hockey background came on board as coach.

Stewart said he has a great love for coaching and has felt that way since he first started, but this is different, as this program is also about educating people about sled hockey and the disabilities that the players have.

“I just love it, and giving these players the opportunity to play these sports is really special and it means a lot,” Stewart said.

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