Hockey on Another Level

11 Dec 2014, Posted by admin in Packages,Top Slider, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , , ,

Hockey on Another Level


A modified form of hockey played on sleds offers the opportunity for disabled Cincinnati athletes to compete.

Story by Ellen Hadley; photos and video by Madison Schmidt

Seven years ago, physical therapist Renee Loftspring approached her son’s hockey coach with an idea that changed the lives of handicapped youth and adults in the Cincinnati area.

Loftspring looks for therapeutic outlets for her patients. And she loves hockey. She learned about sled hockey — where the physically disabled use sleds on the ice — while reading a hockey magazine.

When she asked coach Rob Wocks if he would be interested in putting a team together in Cincinnati, he agreed.

It seemed like it was “an awesome opportunity to do something for someone else,” Loftspring said.

And the Cincinnati IceBreakers became a reality.

For athletes who can’t skate standing up because of a physical disability, sled hockey offers a chance to compete. It follows NHL rules, except the game is played at half the height.

Players scoot and stop along the ice at varying speeds. They use their hockey sticks to propel themselves the way skiers maneuver with ski poles.

Wocks said he treats the athletes the same as he would able-bodied players.

“I don’t look at what they can do and can’t do,” Wocks said. “I look at them as hockey players.”

Wocks, 58, grew up playing hockey in Canada. He started coaching in 1998 after his oldest son started skating when he was 3 years old.

Players on the Icebreakers range in age from 7 to 32. Their disabilities include spina bifida, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, amputations and degenerative diseases.

The team practices at the Sports Plus in Evendale once a week. When it comes to competition, the IceBreakers face three other teams during their October-March season.

Sled hockey players lift themselves into their sleds, often with assistance from coaches.

Once on the ice, if a player tips over he or she waves their arms until a coach comes over and sets the player back upright.

Wocks said he treats the athletes the same as he would able-bodied players.

Wocks treats the athletes the same as he would able-bodied players.

Theiss sees sled hockey as a therapeutic outlet.

Dan Theiss, the IceBreakers goaltender, said sled hockey changed his attitude and his life.

Theiss is permanently paralyzed from the waist down after a complication from a surgery. He met Loftspring while doing his rehabilitation with another therapist. Loftspring asked him, “Do you like hockey?”

“I’ll try anything,” said Theiss, a 21-year-old from Mason.

In October 2013, Theiss joined the team for a tournament in Columbus. For the game, the IceBreakers had to borrow a goaltender from another team. When they got back from the tournament, Theiss decided he wanted to try being the team’s goaltender.

Theiss said he sees sled hockey as a therapeutic outlet.

“When I get on the ice with my friends and I feel their support when trying to stop goals — and they feel my support — it’s a good feeling,” Theiss said. “It basically makes me happy through the rest of the week to look forward to it again.”

The  IceBreakers' hour-and-a-half-long weekly practice consists of drills, agility and speed work.

The IceBreakers’ weekly practice consists of drills, agility and speed work.

Beth Yantek, the executive director of the Spina Bifida Coalition of Cincinnati (SBCC), has a son, Jonathan Yantek, who plays for the IceBreakers.

Theiss’s drive and motivation as well as his ability to stay optimistic despite his terminal condition inspire her.

“In life, you look forward to so much,” Yantek said. “Then, because of an accident or a disease, it’s taken away from you, (and) you have to make a choice. It’s really easy to sit back and say, ‘Well, I just don’t have anything to live for.’ It’s more difficult to go out there and say, ‘This is what I’m going to live for.’ And I think that kind of intensity is what Dan brings to this team.”

The nonprofit IceBreakers program is a part of Ohio Sled Hockey league. The four-team league has teams in Cleveland, Columbus and Dublin as well as Cincinnati.

The first six players on the IceBreakers came from the spina bifida coalition, Wocks said. Now, the team has close to 30 players, and is looking to include more.

Sled hockey is an expensive sport. Each sled costs between $600 and $700. The team has 23 sleds and needs more because of growing demand. With the addition of a helmet, pads and sticks, the cost of outfitting a player can come to $1,200.

The most expensive part about hockey is renting ice time. The Icebreakers rent ice at the Sports Plus for an hour and a half practice every Monday evening. It costs $265 per hour, or close to $400 each week for practice.

The IceBreakers depend on volunteers, grants and donations to cover costs. Home Depot donated money to build a new locker room that gives each player a place to store his or her sled and other equipment. The team volunteers time at local events like the Cincinnati Cyclones hockey games. The IceBreakers then receive a part of the ticket sales.

Team members said it’s worth the effort for the chance to compete. In sled hockey, no one has a disability.

“That’s the beautiful (thing about) sled hockey,” Yantek said. “It’s a fully competitive sport. You just don’t use your legs.”


    Donations are what keep the IceBreakers going
    For information about how individuals or companies can become sponsors or make tax-deductible donations, contact Beth Yantek, Renee Loftspring or Rob Wocks via email.

This story was syndicated to and published by WCPO.com.

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