WEST ORANGE, NJ — For the half dozen or so players on the Westfield High School girls' ice hockey team who came out to play, the scrimmage was anything but ordinary.
The Lady Blue Devils took to the ice against the Devils Youth Sled Hockey team in an exhibition matchup Saturday at Codey Arena. Devils Youth consists of children and young adults from all over the region, who practice and scrimmage as part of the program.
Sled hockey, or sledge hockey as it is sometimes referred to in Canada, is a way for players with physical and developmental disabilities to play the game that they love. Instead of ice skates, players are strapped into sleds. They use a pair of small sticks to push themselves in the sled and to shoot the puck.
There are competitive leagues throughout North America and the sport is also played in the Paralympic Winter Games and at the World Championship level.
While this level is much less competitive, the players on Devils Youth still take pride in their play. Speaking after the game, Westfield Head Coach Matt Gualtieri, who had skated with his players, said that it was an easy decision for his team to play in this exhibition.
“I’ve done this before in the past with a previous team that I’ve coached, so it was a no-brainer,” Gualtieri said. “I brought it up to the girls, and they were excited. … I think it’s good for them to have an opportunity to do something like this.”
Gualtieri noted that the game play had its advantages, including as a bonding activity for the team, and something they could do over winter break.
“I think it’s good for the girls to see that these individuals are able to persevere with their disabilities,” Gualtieri said. “For [the girls], if they’re having a hard time just trying to skate, they can see that ‘they’re out there doing it, so why can’t I do it?’ So, I think it’s good for them to see that they’re able to do what they do.”
Westfield senior captain Maddie McDevitt said that when the idea was first broached, the team jumped at the chance to play.
“The first time we heard about it, we all looked around and thought it would be so fun,” McDevitt said. “I remember looking at everyone and being like ‘oh my gosh, that sounds so fun.’ And when we got here it looked so hard, and it was really hard when we stepped on the ice. But the second period, third period, it was really fun.”
Seeing the performance of the players on the sled team was inspiring, McDevitt said, and even with the lopsided score in favor of the regular sled players, the atmosphere of the game was all about comradery.
“Even before the game started, they were all coming up to me and being like ‘this is how you stop, this is how you shoot. You fall over a bunch, but you’ll get the hang of it,’ and I did, and it was really cool to have them here to help us,” she added.
For Mike Szymczak, a Highland Lakes resident who plays in goal and coaches the Devils Youth squad, the chance to scrimmage against outside clubs like Westfield is a welcome part of the schedule.
Szymczak, who started playing in 2001 after his family read a magazine article about the sport, noted that many players on the team suffer from medical or developmental issues, and the treatment for those issues leaves them unable to play a regular game schedule.
“For this team, it’s basically just practices, scrimmaging in practice,” Szymczak said. “Little pickup games like this, which are more just to get awareness of the sport for the able-bodied community.”
Szymczak said that when he gets the chance to work with the younger players who may just be getting into the sport full-time, it is fulfilling to watch them find joy in the game, just as he did when he was younger.
“Being a hockey fan, I’ve always loved playing,” Szymczak said. “I see these kids, the smile on their face. It basically gives me hope for the next generation. So, I just try to impart as much knowledge as I have, and I’m still learning. So, whatever I know try to impart on them as best I can.”
At the end of the day, the objective was to have fun while learning more about sled hockey, and the girls’ team did just that.
Asked about whether she and the others would potentially jump at the opportunity to sled again, McDevitt summed the experience of the Westfield girls succinctly.
“It was so fun,” McDevitt said. “I’d do this again right now if I could.”
Matt Kass is the managing editor of TAPinto Springfield and TAPinto Millburn-Short Hills. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org