Sled hockey has a home in Pittsburgh, but how accessible is it?



Matt Moret: Welcome to Field Study, a podcast about sports and science from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m your host and producer, Matt Moret.

The final episode of this season is about Western Pennsylvania’s ties to adaptive sports.

In case you aren’t familiar, “adaptive sports” is an umbrella term for sports starring people with disabilities. Among of the most popular ones is sled hockey, or “sledge hockey,” as it’s known in most places outside the United States.

Sled hockey is a version of hockey for players unable to fully use their legs. Players slide across the ice on, you guessed it, sleds, and they each have two small sticks to help them shoot and maneuver. It’s a fast, sometimes dangerous sport.

The Post-Gazette’s Mackenzie Rodrigues took a look at how the game has tried to make itself safe and accessible to disabled people without many resources. Here’s what she learned.

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Mackenzie Rodrigues: When you think of hockey, what comes to mind?

Maybe you think of a game you watched, or the logo of your favorite team.

Maybe it’s even simpler than that. It’s sticks, skates and pucks.

For Dan McCoy it’s a sled. At least, it has been since he was 4-years-old.

McCoy was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus. A sled helped him become a member of the U.S. national sled hockey team.

He’s been on two World Championship gold medal teams and one silver medal team. He also played on the 2014 Paralympic team that won gold in Sochi, Russia.

McCoy: It’s always a source of pride for me, no matter which team I’m playing for. Whether it’s a USA team or the local team now, I always take pride in playing sled hockey.

Rodrigues: McCoy’s family has always been a huge hockey family.

His dad grew up watching the Penguins and his brother played while he was growing up.

McCoy: I’d always go to his games, watching everything he was doing, really interested in the game. My parents knew that I had trouble standing up on regular ice skates because I tried many times and just continued to fall over. So they tried to get me out on ice skates and that wasn’t quite working out, but they found out through one of our neighbors that Shriners Hospital up in Erie, Pa., had started a team a few years prior and were looking for participants.

A few of us, a few individuals with disabilities here in Pittsburgh that are now some of my best friends on the team, we would always go up to Erie and participate in some of their exhibition games.

Maybe a year or two into it, my parents along with some others in the organization realized, “Our kids have really taken an interest in this and it looks like they have a future in it.”

But my parents live about a half an hour north of Pittsburgh, so traveling from Pittsburgh to Erie every month wasn’t very feasible at the time.

Rodrigues: That’s when the Mighty Penguins sled hockey team was born.

The team officially formed in 1998 and has been playing ever since. McCoy has spent nearly 22 years working and playing with the team in some capacity.

McCoy: When I started out, it was all family funded: the travel, the equipment, the sleds, everything. It was completely family-funded and now our organization gets some funding from the Pittsburgh Penguins, as well as some local organizations that are thankfully willing to help us out a little bit because obviously hockey is not a cheap sport.

Rodrigues: As the program grew, so did McCoy’s interest and talent. He remembers the moment he decided sled hockey was the dream he wanted to chase.

McCoy: I was at one of my brother’s hockey tournaments in Canada at the time of the 2002 Paralympic game, and one of my teammates on the Mighty Penguins at the time, Josh Wirt, was pretty much my role model growing up to try to make the Paralympic team. He was on the team in 2002 when they won the gold medal, and I was at my brother’s tournament when I saw that game in our hotel room.

I looked at my parents and said, “This is what I want to do.” I looked at my parents and said, “I want to be in the Olympics.” At the time I had no idea that there even was a Paralympics.

In this 2013 file photo, Dan McCoy, left, and Josh Wirt, both members of the Mighty Penguins sled hockey team, smile in front of their likenesses on a mural at the original Primanti Bros. in the Strip District. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Shortly after my brother’s tournament, we went up to Windsor, Ontario, for a tournament of my own. My teammate I mentioned, Josh Wirt, he had brought his gold medal up there, and I got to see it in person and put it on for the first time. That’s when it really clicked and I thought alright this is it. We’re going for it.

Rodrigues: Obviously McCoy’s determination paid off. Not many people get to call themselves an international sports champion, let alone people with disabilities.

Gold medals and trophies aside, though, McCoy sees another payoff for all of his work.

McCoy: You see families and small children with disabilities get on sleds for the first time and realize, “Wow, I can do something with this disability.” Before they get on a lot of times they’re very timid and unsure of what their body can do and they feel broken in a way.

Then when they get on the ice, they have a whole new perspective, and you see their faces light up with smiles. It’s pretty cool.

Rodrigues: McCoy says he’s seen the sport welcome more and more people throughout the years. But it was the local club he’s helped build, not his international fame, that inspired one family to chase their own sled hockey dreams.

Brian Buchkovich: The Mighty Penguins in Pittsburgh gave a demonstration at a Johnstown Chiefs game, and we went and saw it. My son, Ethan, who has spina bifida, pretty much fell in love with it right away.

Rodrigues: That’s Brian Buchkovich. He’s spent the past 12 years coaching sled hockey. That experience led him to Penn State University, where he became the new director and coach of the university’s Ability Athletics program in the fall of 2019.

But if you’d told him before that Mighty Penguins exhibition that this is where he’d be today, he would have been more than a bit skeptical.

Buchkovich: I didn’t even know [sled hockey] existed until that demonstration. Ethan is my third child of four, three boys and a girl, he’s my third oldest. The older two never played hockey. My brother has kids and all of his kids played hockey, and he’s the one that let me know about it through the organization his kids were involved with the Cambria County Student Hockey League. They’re the ones that brought the Mighty Penguins there for the demonstration, so he let me know.

I had never heard of sled hockey before that. The only hockey I ever played was basically pond hockey.

Rodrigues: Buchkovich saw how enamored his son was with sled hockey, so he and another parent took on the responsibility of coaching their newly formed sled hockey team, the Sitting Bulls. Buchkovich admits he was in a bit over his head at first.

Buchkovich: My son has been to the national development camp for sled hockey, and the first time Ethan went, I would just sit and watch these other coaches and what drills they were doing.

Mostly at the start, it was trial and error. And I’ll tell ya, it was a lot of error at first.

Rodrigues: One of the issues Buchovich noticed early on involved a basic question: How do people without much money find equipment for such a niche sport?

When Buchkovich recruits people to come out and try sled hockey, he knows that most of them won’t have access to the gear they need. And some may not even know what they need in order to get started.

Buchkovich: Unless they have played regular stand-up hockey, and then they were injured or they have an older sibling, usually they don’t have it. We provide all of that, though, through The Sitting Bulls.

Our goal has always been to have them play at no cost. We provide all of the equipment. The only cost would be if they want to upgrade equipment, like if they want to get their own helmet, their own gloves. A lot of them have applied for grants to get their own sled now.

The only cost is travel costs, and even we try to provide them a little bit of money to cover hotel costs and gas and stuff like that. That would be the only cost for them to play.

Mobility Sports manufactures sleds for a variety of sizes, skills and needs. (Courtesy of Mobility Sports)

Rodrigues: It also helps that Buchkovich and his team can buy a variety of sleds to meet the needs of many athletes.

Buchkovich: We buy a selection of sleds. There’s bucket sizes, so we try and buy a selection. Some of them have smaller buckets for the younger kids and bigger buckets for adults. The different equipment that we buy. Everybody uses the same type of stick, it’s just the length that may change, it depends how high they sit in their sled. We might need to trim the stick down a little bit to make it fit them.

A lot of the sleds that we have for the team, they’re adjustable. So if somebody doesn’t use that sled anymore, it can be reused for someone else. We can widen the blades, we can lengthen it.

Rodrigues: Just as with coaching, becoming familiar with sled hockey equipment was a learning process for Buchkovich.

Buchkovich: The learning was trial and error, pretty much like coaching was. I didn’t have any knowledge of sled hockey to begin with, so when we get the sled it’s just making the adjustments to make them fit the player. Most are adjustable so that you can lengthen them or shorten them. All of them are adjustable on the bottom where you can change the width of the blades. Most everybody, when they start playing, their blades are maybe 4 inches apart to provide stability. Whenever they get more advanced, they’re maybe a half inch apart, the blades. It allows you to turn much sharper and go faster.

It’s something in coaching that you try to notice, whenever they’re in practice, there are certain things you look for. They’re trying to turn, but the blades are so wide that they’re leaning, but the sled isn’t turning with them. When they’re turning you try to get them up on one blade so they’re turning sharper, but when [the blades are] wider it’s difficult to do that. You just have to watch and adjust that slowly, so it was a lot of learning for the equipment.

Rodrigues: But when the Sitting Bulls were just getting organized, they didn’t start off by buying a bunch of sleds. Instead, they rented them.

Buchkovich: I learned about Mobility Sports when we were a new organization. USA Hockey has a lend-a-sled program for new teams that they’ll loan you, I think, six sleds and the sticks to go with it. The six sleds that we got for our team were from Mobility Sports.

Rodrigues: Mobility Sports is a family-owned sled company based in Indiana. Randy Kwapis founded the company in 2002 and now runs it with the help of his son, Matt, who also manages the USA Disabled Hockey Sled Lending Program. Matt, who is living with Spina Bifida, was his father’s inspiration.

Originally, the plan was to start an everyday wheelchair company, but the barrier to entering that market proved to be pretty high. Here’s Matt.

Matt Kwapis: It’s not just, you know, build it and then sell it to the masses. It’s much more difficult, especially for a small company to get into.

When people are looking to purchase a wheelchair, most of those individuals go through insurance. And in order to have insurance pay for a wheelchair, that has to be approved by the FDA. In order to go through that process, it can cost upwards of $1 million, just in the testing. It’s a really rigorous process.

Rodrigues: The company hit those roadblocks early on. And because the wheelchair market is mostly dominated by a few large companies, it was tough to find an entry point.

Discovering sled hockey changed everything.

Kwapis: The business transitioned into sled hockey after I went to a sled hockey event in Canton, Mich., and since my dad already had all of the materials to build wheelchairs, over the next week or so he built me the first prototype of a sled and I was using it that next week at practice. It kind of just took off from there.

Rodrigues: Mobility Sports is at the center of the sled hockey business, so Matt has seen the game grow dramatically since that 2006 exhibition in Canton.

Kwapis: It was something that I had never even heard of because it really didn’t start taking off until right around then. Really within the last five years we’ve seen it explode and just every year just the sport just grows more and more.

Rodrigues: The Kwapis family has figured out how to stand out over the years, particularly when it comes to sled and equipment design. There aren’t a ton of companies in the sled hockey space, and that’s allowed Mobility to really innovate.

For instance, some companies use a “bolt-together” method for sleds, but Mobility Sports went a different route.

Kwapis: We use the welding approach for several reasons. We feel that by providing the user with a welded frame — which includes bolts for the bucket to meld onto the frame — allows for a better set up for the bucket in relation to the blades.

Essentially, you’re sitting on a pair of ice skates, so the more on top of the blades you can be, the more control you’ll have in the sled. So, by welding the frame together and then bolting the bucket onto that welded frame, it allows everything to be much more rigid so nothing will move.

Mobility Sports founder Randy Kwapis and his son Matt Kwapis attend sled hockey events, such as this one in Columbus, Ohio, to promote their brand and products. (Courtesy of Mobility Sports)

Rodrigues: Companies like Mobility Sports play an essential role in helping individuals get into adaptive sports.

But stand-up hockey is a notoriously expensive sport for players. And sled hockey is no different. When he started Mobility, Matt’s dad Randy looked for ways to lower that financial hurdle.

Kwapis: Being with me my whole life and just being in the disabled community and seeing all of the struggles that I went through, he wanted to make something that was cost effective because unfortunately, most wheelchair uses just don’t have a lot of money. So he wanted to make something that was cost effective, that he could sell at a good price and feel good about it.

Rodrigues: The sleds on their website range from $550 to $750 and are designed for a variety of positions, skill levels and needs.

Recently, Mobility Sports has launched an equipment rental service. Customers pay $160 to rent a sled and a set of carbon fiber sticks for eight weeks. The company sees it as an opportunity to get even more people involved.

Kwapis: It’s something that we just started here within the last 6 or 8 months. We haven’t rented them out that much, but people were always asking us, “Oh I really want to get a sled, but I can’t afford to pay the full price right now.”

So we started offering the rental program as a means to alleviate the burden of the cost. It’s just a rental, it’s not a rent-to-own. But it allows an individual to use a sled for 4-8 weeks.

Rodrigues: Whether it’s teams providing equipment or companies offering rentals, that seems to be a common theme in the sled hockey community: Helping people to get involved, regardless of their situation. And there’s a reason for that.

Kwapis: Sled hockey in general is just an amazing sport. I’ve seen it change lives. The biggest life-changer I’ve seen is individuals who sadly lost their legs or lost their ability to walk while fighting for our country overseas and they come back and they basically have no will to do anything and they get involved in sled hockey and it changes their life.

I’ve heard that from a lot of different people, and that’s why I think it is such an amazing sport. I’ve been around adaptive sports my whole life, and it’s really the only sport that I’ve seen that’s been able to really do that, to change a life that drastically.

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Matt Moret: That does it for this season of Field Study. I want to thank all of you for tuning in. For more sports coverage from the Post-Gazette, you should definitely subscribe to The North Shore Drive. It’s a sports news show featuring the Post-Gazette’s beat writers, and it’s really worth your time.

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