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|| News Item: Posted 2004-05-30

Sled Hockey: Photographer gets into the act
By Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Photo by Anne Ryan, zrIMAGES

Members of the RIC Blackhawks Sled Hockey Team Matthew Coppens, left, and Sylvester Flis play in a scrimmage at the Winnetka Ice Arena. The team, run by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for amputees and paraplegics, was formed in 1999.
I have a new favorite sport. It's called sled hockey. It's not a sport that most people have ever heard of because it is a sport for the disabled. Like most disabled sports, it doesn't get a lot of coverage, but I decided to write about it for Sports Shooter because I think it is very cool and a very good story to cover if you have it in your area. I've also discovered recently that it's very fun to play it if you have the opportunity.

Sled hockey is hockey for people who can't use their legs very well or not at all, like paraplegics and amputees. I learned about it when I was working on an unrelated story at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, also known as RIC. There is a sports program for the disabled there so many different sports. I was immediately interested because I saw this as a way to combine my love of sports photography with my love of documentary photography.

I think that one of the things I love the most about doing stories on people who are disabled and getting to know them is that it puts things into perspective for me. Whenever things seem difficult or I have a problem.

I feel fortunate to know people who've overcome incredible obstacles like losing their legs and I can look to them for inspiration. I've been a photojournalist now for 20 years and, like most of us, I've spent time with so many different types people.

I've found that the people who are the most interesting to me are the ones who don't waste time talking about trivial things like material possessions. I like people who break down barriers, not those who create them.

I arrived at my first sled hockey game to photograph the RIC Blackhawks play in a scrimmage. They are the best team in the country. I was amazed at the speed at which the players could travel up and down the ice. With tremendous upper body strength the players are amazing athletes. The game was also more physical than I expected with players crashing into each other and ending up on their backs and sides.

Photo by John Zich, zrIMAGES

Photo by John Zich, zrIMAGES

Anne Ryan and her son Andy play sled hockey in the McFetridge clinic.
They use a specially designed sled that has two skate blades attached to the bottom. Two shorter hockey sticks are the means they use to both propel themselves around the ice and shoot. The sticks have metal spikes attached to the top end. They flip the sticks over and use them to push themselves around the ice with their arms, then flip the sticks back over to shoot. One other amazing thing I learned was that most of the players never played hockey before sled hockey. They arrived on the sled hockey ice different ways.

Brian Ruhe, a biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate, lost most of both of his legs in a car accident at the age of 18. Scott Brandon fell off of a ladder and injured his spinal cord. Patrick Byrne, who now works at RIC and drives a Zamboni at a suburban ice rink, lost one leg on the in a construction accident which nearly killed him. Ramon Canellada developed spinal cord tumors about four years ago. Sylvester Flis, "Sly", was born with spina bifida.

Flis, 29, who came to the United States from Poland in 1994, won a gold medal in the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City. He's also the only disabled athlete featured on an NHL trading card. He directs a sled hockey clinic for the Chicago Park District at McFetridge Ice Arena in Chicago.

Flis and the other plays convinced me to try sled hockey myself. Three weeks ago I brought my 12-year-old twins there to try it with me. I thought we would just take a few laps around the rink and get off, but it was so much fun we ended up playing a game with Sly and the other players, both disabled and able-bodied.

The very cool part is that it was a level playing field in a sport that disabled and able-bodied can play together. The truth is that they are better and faster players than we are. Now we've been going every week and we are hooked.

(Anne Ryan is a freelance photographer based in Chicago. Formerly a staff photographer with USA TODAY, she is a regular contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Anne Ryan's member page

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