Constable: 'There's nothing disabled' about sled hockey
Muscular, aggressive and one of the fastest players on the team, USA hockey forward Brody Roybal of Northlake skates toward the loose puck. Another player gets there first and delivers a crushing check that sends Roybal skidding on his side across the ice during this practice at the West Meadows Ice Arena in Rolling Meadows.
"Oh, that will look good on your helmet-cam, Brody," heckles Dan Brennan, the USA Hockey general manager running this practice.
"This is nothing compared to what a game is. For games it will be a thousand times harder and crazier out there," says an unfazed Roybal, 19. Listed as 3 feet, 1 inch and 120 pounds, Roybal is one of smaller players on the U.S. National Sled Hockey team that will be competing in March at the 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea. "If they think it's a disabled sport so we're not going to be playing hockey, they are wrong," he said.
Born without legs, Roybal started playing sled hockey, known internationally as sledge hockey, at age 7. He was just a high school kid when he scored two goals in five games during the 2014 Paralympic Games to help the U.S. squad earn the gold medal.
Teammate Josh Misiewicz, 29, grew up in LaGrange, played Division III hockey at St. Mary's University in Minnesota, got his associate degree from the College of DuPage and is just as aggressive on the ice. As a Marine serving in Afghanistan, Misiewicz stepped on a land mine in July 2011 and lost both his legs above the knee. He thought his days as an elite athlete were finished. Now he's playing hockey for a team that is one of the favorites for a gold medal.
"Yeah, you didn't think about that when you were getting blown up," teases teammate Kevin McKee, 27, who was born with a spinal deformity. McKee, Roybal and Misiewicz all play for the Chicago Blackhawks Sled Hockey team.
"We're all good friends," McKee says.
"Some people were born disabled. Some guys got injured," Roybal says. "Everyone comes from a different walk of life, but once we get on the ice, we're all on the same playing field."
Getting out of wheelchairs or removing prosthetic legs to squeeze into the plastic buckets (molded to fit their bodies) attached to the metal sleds can be a slow and clumsy process. Then the players hit the ice.
"Being able to be disabled and move this fast is great," Misiewicz gushes. "This is as competitive and high-speed as my college hockey. They're both hockey."
Instead of a pair of skates and one hockey stick, sled hockey players sit in a sled they must balance on a hockey skate near the front and one blade near the back. They use two sticks, about 2 feet long, and each has a metal pic for gripping the ice to build speed and curved blades for shooting and passing. This leads to plenty of behind-the-back passes and artistic puck-handling.
"The first time I got on the ice, I was like, 'I know how to play hockey. Why can't I catch on?'" Misiewicz remembers thinking. "It's not easy."
With local players of the team, Brennan says USA Hockey has built a relationship with Bob Veller, superintendent of the ice arenas for the Rolling Meadows Park District. So the USA National Sled Hockey team has made Rolling Meadows its practice home until they leave March 2 for Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the Paralympic Games that start March 8.
Playing in a tournament in Italy this weekend, the sled hockey team also plays games in Canada in February. USA beat Canada 3-2 in December to win the World Sled Hockey Challenge. Roybal and Misiewicz both scored goals on assists from each other, and Roybal was named the U.S. Player of the Game.
Canada and the U.S. are the favorites to win Olympic gold in a sport where teams generally are very supportive and friendly.
"I wouldn't say we're real chummy with Canada," Brennan admits, noting that rivalry is intense. A college player who played professionally in Europe and has coached on many levels, Brennan draws up plays on a white board and shouts out instructions to his players.
"You need to keep your head up and watch the puck," Brennan scolds one player.
"What was that?" he yells to a defender who gives up the puck near his own net. "You can't do that in a game or we'll get killed."
The action is so physical and so fast that it is easy to forget that these athletes have overcome life-changing disabilities to be here, Brennan says.
"People think it's a 'feel good' story, and it's not. There's nothing disabled about it," Brennan says. "The only difference is that they don't skate backward. After that, they're just regular hockey players."