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Penguins Host Local Sled Hockey Team

Tuesday, 01.20.2009 / 12:39 PM ET / Community
By Deborah Francisco
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Penguins Host Local Sled Hockey Team

The members of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins, a local sled hockey team, viewed the Pittsburgh Penguins practice and then held a practice of their own at Mellon Arena on Monday morning.

Players balance inches above the ice on specially designed sleds.  Click to see more photos.
Sled hockey is a sport that allows people with disabilities to play hockey. Each sled hockey player balances just inches above the ice, strapped to a narrow sled with two blades beneath the seat. The distance between the two blades is determined by the player’s experience. They propel themselves along the ice with two specially designed mini-hockey sticks. In many ways, sled hockey is more than a game, as one of the Mighty Penguins’ mothers explained.

“It gave an identity to my son,” Angie McCoy said. “(It) provided him with the self confidence that, ‘Hey, I might not look like everybody else, but I can compete like anybody else.’”

The kids cheered and hollered as they watched their heroes, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, pass the puck up the ice and score a goal on the Penguins newest team member, Mathieu Garon, during practice. Some of them sat along the glass, or behind the players’ bench, while others viewed the action from their wheelchairs several rows behind the ice. They cherished the unique chance to see their idols play.

“You can see the smiles on the kids faces - they love it,” eight-year sled hockey coach Mark McCoy said. “To be this close to their idols is terrific. It’s going to be such a memorable experience for them on the ice and just getting to see the team practice. They’ll remember this for years to come.”

The kids were simply glowing when they dressed-out in their own gear and waited to get on the ice themselves. Simple shin guards, shoulder pads, gloves and a helmet were transformed into armor and each child was a knight ready for battle. According to Angie McCoy, they call it “Superman Syndrome,” because of the transformation the kids experience when they get out on the ice.

The sport is designed for people with physical disabilities or mental disabilities, but for Mark, the thing that’s great about sled hockey is the way it brings the families together and allows the kids to develop camaraderie.

The Mighty Penguins have been in Pittsburgh for nearly 10 years now and they offer three levels of play: novice, junior and intermediate. Their ages range from 4 to adult. They compete in the Western Sled Hockey League and travel all over North America for games and tournaments.

“Going away on these tournament trips,” Mark said, “it’s special beyond the sport itself. It really brings these kids together in a way that otherwise, they might not have a chance to do.”

Mark and Angie’s son, Daniel, always wanted to play a competitive sport and sled hockey provides him that opportunity. The McCoys tried many different disabled sports, but none of them are as close to the actual sport as sled hockey is. Daniel is now 15, but he started playing when he was 6 years old. He currently plays wing for the Under-20 National Team.

“When I was born with my disability I wanted to play a sport,” Daniel said. “I first started to play t-ball, but I wanted something with a little more action. Sled hockey is just a fast paced game, and with other sports like football and baseball they’re fast once they start going. But in hockey, you’re always moving which is really fun.”

The kids zoomed up and down the Mellon Arena ice, passing the puck through the neutral zone, or battling for possession along the boards. All of the players wore a black or white jersey with the Pittsburgh Penguins logo on it, all except one player who donned a red team USA jersey.

Josh, 24, starting playing with the Mighty Penguins during their first season and he loves the competitiveness of sled hockey. In 2002, he won a gold medal with Team USA at the Paralympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Josh has played at many arenas throughout North America but none of them compared to playing at Mellon on Monday.

“It was really cool to come out and play where (Mario) Lemieux played, and where (Jaromir) Jagr played, and now Crosby and Malkin and all the guys play,” Josh said.

One youngster on the ice, Nathan, like his hero Crosby, boasts number 87 on his jersey. Nathan just picked up sled hockey 14 months ago when his family moved to Pittsburgh in part, to find more activities for Nathan to get involved in. The 11-year-old carrot top was simply ecstatic to see Crosby practice.

“We’re Penguins fans so to come here was a real pleasure and a thrill,” Nathan’s father, Jeff, said. “We really appreciate the opportunity from the Penguins very much, it’s very kind of them to do that.”

While Nathan is still learning the rules of the game, he absolutely loves sled hockey and has picked up the sport rather quickly. He even scored the game-tying goal for his team at their last tournament in Columbus. In true Sidney Crosby fashion, he scored his first goal on a wrap around play from behind the net.

“Yes, it’s really cool when you go fast.” Nathan said. “It’s just so fun, and I get to play a lot, it’s really cool.”

Several Penguins players came out after practice to watch the sled hockey team practice, including Marc-Andre Fleury and Pascal Dupuis. Fleury even tossed his stick to one of the kids at the end of the Penguins’ practice.

“It’s great to see how they can play hockey a little bit differently and their disability doesn’t stop them from playing,” Fleury said. “That shows a lot about their passion for the game.”

The members of the Mighty Penguins have a passion for the sport that is simply unparalleled. It is exactly this passion that is evident when the kids fly up and down the ice.

“It’s a fast paced, hitting sport and you always get that adrenaline rush when something big happens,” goaltender, 18, Dan said. “You live for that moment.”

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