The first game for the men’s and women’s hockey team wasn’t what one would normally expect. Members of both squads traded in their normal ice skates and pads for the night in favor of something different—a sled. Last Friday, the Engineers were challenged by a new, local team—the Capital District Sled Warriors—in an exhibition match. Although RPI lost the game, 4-3, the players and coaches walked away with a new appreciation for the game, and the challenges some people face to share in the joy of the sport they love.
“I thought it was outstanding. I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh that’s great of RPI to do that,’ but I think we’re the fortunate ones,” said the men’s Head Coach Seth Appert of the experience. “We, I think as a program, the men’s and the women’s teams, got more out of that than the Sled Warrior team did. It’s just a very humbling experience.”
He continued, “It’s great to be able to give back to the community and share something with your local young girls and boys, and at the same time, I think it gives our players a great appreciation of the opportunities that they have, and also what other people have to go through in life to try and pursue their passions.”
That night, the Sled Warriors also featured two special players: Mike Biabac—goalie of the USA National Sled Hockey team—who suited up in net, and Taylor Chace, one of the star members of the US Paralympic Sled team and brother of Rensselaer’s own senior winger Rossli Chace of the women’s hockey team. “It was a very special experience to play sled hockey with Taylor. He’s been playing for about six years now and I’ve been watching him since he started, but being able to actually play with him was so different,” added R. Chace. “I have an unbelievable respect for him and everyone who plays the sport. The game as a whole is so physically challenging, much harder than I ever expected it to be. I have always looked up to my brother’s abilities to overcome huge obstacles in his life and now I have an even better understanding of the challenges he has had to face.”
T. Chace netted two goals in the game and assisted on another. “[Taylor] was outstanding; he could have scored 10 goals if he wanted to. It was very impressive,” Appert smiled. T. Chace entered the sport of sled hockey after a spinal cord injury while playing the regular game. Although he is able to walk, injuries still prevent him from skating in the traditional manner.
Sled hockey, although fundamentally similar to regular ice hockey, differs only slightly in that players who have physical disabilities that prohibit them from participating in the normal fashion “skate” by use of a custom-built sled equipped with blades on the bottom and two shortened hockey sticks with metal picks at the opposite end of the blade for maneuvering and propulsion. Essentially, all of the regular ice hockey rules have been transferred to the sled game, with the exception of benches. In a sled hockey game, the entranceways to the players’ benches and penalty benches from the ice are designed evenly with the ice so the players can access them without the help of a coach or able-bodied person, and have a smooth plastic inside to prevent damage to the sled. Fortunately for the Engineers, all line changes remained restricted to the ice with extra players off to the sides. It was definitely an enlightening experience for both teams. “Over the years, I have caught myself taking hockey and my abilities for granted and then I think about all the people I have met through Taylor’s experiences. It really reminds me to be thankful for everything I have. I hope this experience has given the same appreciation of the sport to my teammates, the men’s team, and everyone involved with our programs,” said R. Chace.
After the game, members of both RPI teams had the opportunity to converse and meet with their opposition, mostly young children in the Capital District who have adapted around their disabilities to play their favorite sport. “The event as a whole was a great experience for everyone,” said R. Chace. “My team and the men’s team were able to look at hockey from a different perspective, which is always important. But most of all, we had a blast. I hope RPI hockey continues this tradition every year and helps increase interest in the sport of sled hockey.”
With this challenge under their belts, both teams look forward to the upcoming season. The women’s team begins with an exhibition match at home against a Canadian team, the Bluewater Hawks, this Saturday at 4 pm. The following weekend, the men hit the ice in a homecoming matchup against Prince Edward Island, another Canadian squad. That game will begin at 7 pm.