Bred for the Sled?

This is an article I wrote three years ago when I tried a taster session in Para Hockey or Sled Hockey as it is commonly known in North America. I have been following the sport for four years now and have been involved with the Manchester side since 2014. Back in 2015, I was was asked if I wanted to come down to Widnes Ice Rink and join the team for a training session with the recently named Manchester Phoenix at that time (now the Manchester Mayhem) and do a feature on the sport and experience first hand how it feels to play.

Now Normally, you will find me tweeting, podcasting or more than likely streaming the games live – with terrible commentary, on social media, due to being the appointed ‘Media Man’ of the Manchester Mayhem. However, on this occasion, I thought to myself ‘why not give it a go’.

Once I got kitted up and was given the vital pieces of equipment for the sport I was about to take part in such as; lightweight shoulder pads, a helmet with a face cage and of course the main thing being a sledge to play in. And more importantly than that, A BOX

The session was run in a joint effort by the Great British Paralympian star Karl Nicholson and also by the head coach of the Mayhem in Pete Hagan. It took me some getting used to as I sat down inside the sledge for the first time. That was the first challenge I had – and I wasn’t even on the Ice yet!

I seemed fine with the sledge after trying to comfortable in it before I hit the ice. Once content, I made it my sole mission to not fall over or at least not topple over too many times during the session after the players constantly mentioned that will happen to me.

Eventually, I got on the Ice at Widnes and had a bit of a glide around the rink to get used to the feeling and handling of being the sledge and the modified hockey sticks that you use. The sticks are much smaller versions of the Ice hockey sticks and look close to the mini-sticks that teams sell in their club shops, but with the difference being metal picks that the players use to pull themselves around.

‘Cruising’ around the Ice, it was a very pleasant experience in truth. In the beginning, I found myself able to push off without too much trouble at all and I thought to myself that ‘this was pretty easy’. Then came the realisation that it isn’t easy at all. The first problem came when I found it hard to stop myself moving in the sledge and ended up crashing into the boards and became a sledge hockey version of ‘Luis Mendoza’ in a sledge – Mendoza being a character from much loved Mighty Ducks films that had a great deal of difficulty whenever he tried to stop skating.

The only way I could stop myself was either falling onto my side or going straight into the boards to stop all my momentum. For my second problem – I struggled to stay upright in the sledge and drew a fair few laughs from the team and looked like a turtle on its back. When you first try the sport yourself you will realise it isn’t as easy as it looks and you have a new found respect too when they weave on the Ice.

While the Manchester players went through their routine of warming up the goalie in then goalie Steve Midghall, In my case, it was just me still trying to deal with turning in the sledge and displaying my ability to turn as quickly as the QE2 would.

Eventually, I thought I’d have a go at trying to join in and test the goalie out with a shot or two, or that was the plan I was going for. However, when I was skating (sitting) through on goal, I tried to take a pass from the corner boards and had the puck go right under the stick and away from me.

The fact that I forgot the sticks are nothing like what I’d play with In ball hockey threw me. Passed were played towards me and every puck went out of reach and also had a puck bouncing off me near the nets from a stray shot and saw gravity hitting me as I fell over on my side.

As I went to collect a loose puck near the nets, I felt my body weight starting to pull me down to the right-hand side and would see me continually falling over throughout the session due to having no core-balance at all. Avoiding falling over on my right side felt like a huge battle being won by myself, though Sadly my joy was soon short-lived and as the video clip shows, I fell almost immediately on my left-side instead and was tiring trying to pull myself up.

With all the fun and games of the warm-ups out the way, we went into a huddle and a walkthrough of the drills that we were about to be working on. I thought to myself ‘I can do this’ as it looked simple and easy. So of course, when I got the go-ahead from Karl Nicholson to start commencing to move off and get the puck, I moved a massive three-foot before gravity hit saw me falling over to my right-hand side again and left knackered trying to push myself back up.

One thing that you do tend to find, or I did in my case at least. When you do fall and I can promise you now, it will happen…a lot, you have to try and laugh at yourself when it occurs. Also, when you have fallen for heaven knows how many times, the more you do it the more you become tired and struggle with getting the energy to even just push yourself up into an upright position and hold it there as you will eventually collapse back down on the ice through tiredness.

Needless to say, it is quite challenging and did manage to have me at least once or twice getting behind the goals with a puck but I just wasn’t quick enough to get there ahead of the oncoming forward. My dashing ability when going forward was pretty good I thought, as I surprised myself with how quickly I was moving but just couldn’t move in any other direction than straight ahead, but thank god for boards to stop my momentum.

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Trying to master gliding

We then did another drill with two defenders against two forwards, this time it had me defending with Graham ‘Pain Train’ Wilson and saw me literally just following him around the Ice and letting him do all the work.

Like I said about the struggling with being upright on the sledge and after numerous attempts at trying to push back up, I found myself laughing to myself in a kind of weird twisted way. Through the miracles and miracles, I somehow managed to pinch the puck off the forward and clear away with a big cheer from the rest of the team as I lay spent on the Ice.

We ended the session with a 3-on-3 drill, though in reality, it was more like a 3 v 2 exercise in all honesty, as I spent most of the drill face down on the ice and just laying there.

Once I had some kind of rhythm and got going and had my balance sorted out I was then able to try and stop the passes going between the other side and noticed that the side had really developed their pass game, with the players on the same wavelength and helped them in the games I’ve reported on and watched during the years.

Even when trying my best out there as a complete rookie and enjoying myself during the session, you really do get a real appreciation of how difficult this sport is and how well that these guys can play this game too. You clearly develop a better perspective and understanding of what the players go through too.

Having watched from the stands or the bench, you just can’t see how tough and difficult it really is to play. My response to you, If you have ever get the chance to have a go and see if you can do better than I did then be my guest, as it is an extremely hard sport to master in a sense. It is a good start if you have a good core to your body as the weight you transfer can affect your balance on the sledge and have you topple over and over.

My thanks go out again to the Manchester Mayhem Para Ice Hockey team and especially their captain Karl Nicholson and head coach Pete Hagan for allowing me to take part in their session during the season and it was truly an enjoyable experience and one I’d try again too.

Video of my first taster session:

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