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Published: 10/8/2008

Sled hockey presents opportunity for youths with disabilities

BY MARK MONROE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Kids skate on sleds during a recent exhibition in Sylvania. Kids skate on sleds during a recent exhibition in Sylvania.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Six-year-old Damian Jeffries longed to be able to play hockey like his heroes on the Toledo Storm, but his physical disabilities prevented him from being able to skate on the ice.

But now the young Waterville resident has an opportunity to play adaptive ice hockey with the formation of Toledo Sled Hockey.

Local children and young adults with physical disabilities can learn to play hockey through the new organization.

Toledo Sled Hockey is for boys and girls ages 5 and older who can't play standing hockey. Players sit in specially designed sleds that rest on top of two skate blades. Miniature sticks are used for propulsion and handling the puck.

Damian, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, took part in the group's first exhibition event at Tam O'Shanter Saturday.

His mother, Allesha Jeffries, and Perrysburg residents Kelli and Dennis Palcisko spearheaded the formation of Toledo Sled Hockey.

"My son is 6 years old with special needs, and he is a huge, huge hockey fan," Damian's mother said. "This gives him and other kids that are not able to play regular ice hockey a chance to play."

Sled hockey was invented at a Stockholm rehabilitation center in the early 1960s by a group of Swedes who wanted to continue playing hockey despite their physical disabilities.

The organizers of the local program said if there is adequate interest, they will proceed with the process of applying for grants, sponsorships, and other long-term funding options.

"It's for anyone who has a physical disability and can't play hockey," Kelli Palcisko said. "It can be a balance disorder or coordination issue. We're not counting anyone out.

"It's a unique opportunity for kids with disabilities," Mrs. Palcisko said. "They can play soccer or baseball. But we wanted something specific for hockey."

The Cleveland and Columbus areas both have sled hockey organizations. Miss Jeffries and Mrs. Palcisko recently went to Cleveland to watch the teams play a game.

"It was pretty spectacular. I was stunned how physical they got. They would check each other with their sleds and fight for the puck," Miss Jeffries said. "They offered to come here do to an exhibition."

Some of the players from teams in Cleveland and Columbus put on the exhibition game, and local children were given the opportunity to try the sport out for themselves.

Miss Jeffries said some hockey players from St. John's Jesuit High School served as volunteers.

Mrs. Palcisko, a pediatric physical therapist at St. Vincent Mercy Children's Hospital, said the response has been good so far.

"Nine families have shown interest," she said. "I give information to some of the patients I treat."

Miss Jeffries said her son became interested in hockey on a fluke.

"We went to a Storm game basically to get souvenirs," she said. "But he became obsessed with hockey."

Miss Jeffries said after the game two Storm players, Chris Blight and Gerry Burke, met Damian.

"He was sitting up along the rail with his medical braces on," Miss Jeffries said. "They took a special interest in him. They talked directly to him. Chris was always very good to him after that. They both have been very supportive."

Miss Jeffries said Blight first made her aware of sled hockey.

"They recommended that we look into what they called sledge hockey," she said. "They use miniature hockey sticks. The end of the shaft has ice picks so they can propel themselves. You flip the stick over to control the puck."

Miss Jeffries, who is a single mother and a full-time registered nurse, said it was initially difficult to do research on sled hockey.

"But then Kelli came to me and she asked me about it. That's when we put it into gear," Miss Jeffries said.

Mrs. Palcisko said she originally heard about sled hockey when she was working at the Cleveland Clinic. It caught her attention because her husband has played hockey since he was youngster and still plays in a recreation league.

After the couple moved to Perrysburg, Damian became one of Mrs. Palcisko's patients at St. Vincent's.

"I found out he just loved hockey and we had a common bond immediately," Mrs. Palcisko said. "That's when we decided to spearhead it. We thought it would be the best of both worlds."

Mrs. Palcisko said sled hockey is not only fun recreation, it also can be beneficial to rehabilitation.

"It is completely therapeutic," she said. "They can work on their trunk. It is social but also very therapeutic."

Mrs. Palcisko said the sport involves a lot of balance.

"Kids can fall over quite a bit," she said. "Propelling themselves can be difficult also. So we'll have one-on-one situations with them."

Miss Jeffries said Damian is high-functioning and wanted to play hockey.

"He has a wheelchair he uses for what we call community distances," Miss Jeffries said. "But he has come a long way. Initially the prognosis was that he would never walk or talk. He is a miracle kid. He's awesome."

Miss Jeffries said sled hockey is not yet popular in the United States, but is very popular in Canada.

"It's starting to make its way into the U.S.," she said. "We have teams all around us. But there was none here."

There are sled hockey teams in Grand Rapids, Mich.. and Canton, Mich., as well as Fort Wayne, Ind.

To participate in sled hockey, players should be able to propel a manual wheelchair and sit upright in the sled's "bucket seat" that has an attached seatbelt.

"It's open to any kids who could not play hockey. They just have to be able to sit upright in a sled and propel themselves," Miss Jeffries said. "Most of the kids are in wheelchairs. But some are very high-functioning autistic children."

Miss Jeffries said the organization will conduct some fund-raising activities, and she hopes the kids can be on the ice once a month.

"The kids have to learn how to play. It may be a year before we play any games," she said.

Miss Jeffries said she contacted schools in the area and provided them with brochures.

Mrs. Palcisko said the group already has about 15 volunteers. For information about the group, call Mrs. Palcisko at 419-872-2884 or Miss Jeffries at 419-467-9368.

"We're just trying to get this thing rolling. The ultimate goal is to have enough kids who are interested to start a team," Mrs. Palcisko said.

Contact Mark Monroe at: mmonroe@theblade.com

or 419-304-4760.



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