CRANBERRY TWP — The appeal of sled hockey isn't too different from the appeal of traditional ice hockey, according to one player.
“It's fun to do because you get to skate around a lot and you get to go fast,” said Kristofer Robinson, 8, who has played the sport for two years.
The Mighty Penguins Sled Hockey team found a new home in Cranberry last year when the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex opened. Last weekend it hosted its first tournament at the complex, with 11 teams from around the nation participating.
The Mighty Penguins has about 50 participants of all ages, including several from Butler County, and also works with numerous volunteers who help out both on and off the ice.
Sled hockey is an adaptive form of ice hockey in which participants sit on specially-made sleds that are outfitted with blades on the bottom.
Players propel themselves and pass and shoot the puck using two sticks that have a hockey blade on one end and ice-pick on the bottom. The players' legs are immobile when they are in the sleds.
The sport is divided into four age and ability levels: novice, for children younger than 18; junior, for more competitive children; intermediate, for adults; and senior, for more competitive adults.
The Mighty Penguins are a nonprofit organization founded in 1998. Thanks to a relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the team provides equipment to its players for free.
Players have to pay a registration fee to cover ice time and other costs, said Amy Brown, a Cranberry Township resident and the organization's president.
The team always welcomes new players and lets them try out the sleds on a trial basis before registering for a whole year, Brown said.
“It can be recreation or it can be more serious,” she said. “We let them pick what they want to do.”
The team used to practice at Alpha Ice Complex in Harmar Township, Allegheny County, before moving to Cranberry.
“This is an amazing facility and it is so nice to be welcomed by the Penguins,” she said.
Junior coach Eric Brown said learning to skate can be difficult, but the participants, many of whom are amputees or live with conditions such as cerebral palsy, are used to adapting and overcoming challenges.
Instead of using their legs, players must have upper-body strength to do well.
“They need strong shoulder, arm and back muscles. It's difficult to get speed like the competitive guys,” he said.
Robinson of Butler tried out sled hockey after seeing a game televised with the Paralympic Games.
He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was an infant. Seven years ago, doctors amputated his right leg and part of his pelvis. He has been cancer-free for six years.
He has a prosthetic leg that he can walk and run with, but sometimes uses forearm crutches for support.
Despite trying several other sports, sled hockey has been the best fit, his mother, Rachel Robinson, said during a recent practice.
“He finally found a sport he is able to do where he doesn't get criticized or bullied and he can be himself,” she said.
This year he is one of the youngest players on the junior team and he said he aspires to compete at the senior level when he turns 18.
Eric and Amy's son, Alex Brown, has played sled hockey for about six years, which is how they got involved.
Alex was diagnosed with spontaneous spinal epidural hematoma, a type of spinal cord injury, when he was 4 years old after complaining of neck pain. He gets around in a wheelchair and receives specialized treatment every year in Kentucky.
He said learning to get around on the sled using the sticks was daunting when he first started.
“I fell over a lot. It's hard to learn to skate,” he said.
However, after a lot of practice and sticking with it, he was able to get better and move up to the junior team.
Some of the players who need help getting around on the ice get a buddy who helps guide them. Charney Burg, 13, of Cranberry Township is paired with Callie Rose, 11, of Canonsburg, Washington County, who has cerebral palsy.
Last weekend, Callie scored her first goal during a tournament game.
“It was really exciting for her, and for me, but she was really excited,” Charney said.
Her brother, Lucas Burg, 11, has also gotten involved on the ice, where he helps the coaches to run drills during practice.
The league always is accepting new players and it also can use volunteers. They have practices starting at 4:45 p.m. every Monday at the Lemieux Complex, 8000 Cranberry Springs Drive. For more information, visit penguinssledhockey.org.