Rebecca Mann knew very little about hockey before she had to have her foot amputated a year ago, but now she can’t get enough of it.
Mann and several other Greater Boston players – part of the Spaulding Shamrocks adaptive sled hockey team – are based out of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown and play their home games in Everett. Despite the loss of her foot, hockey has become a liberating obsession, Mann said.
“After my amputation, I wanted to get back into competitive sports,” Mann said. “Sled hockey has given that edge back to me. On the ice, nothing can hold you back. After my amputation, I can do a lot of things I couldn’t do before. I’m doing things I used to do. I can be the person I was before – competitive and no-holds-barred. I feel whole again on the ice.”
That’s the same story from almost all of the players on the Shamrocks, who had a major New England tournament at the Everett rink last weekend. While the Shamrocks aren’t the best team in the league, they have a lot of new players like Mann who are regaining their desire for competition through Spaulding’s hockey program.
At the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, the hospital has sponsored several adaptive sports leagues, but the sled hockey league has a special significance.
Keja MacEwan, of Partners Health Care and the manager of the Shamrocks, said the team started four years ago when Spaulding Dr. Bernard Sears and his wife, Edna, decided they wanted to give enough money to fund the team for five years.
They also fund a program at the Charlestown rink to introduce patients at Spaulding to the game of sled hockey. Many participate at the local rink and end up taking on the sport when they leave their rehabilitation.
“They were big hockey fans and were associated with Spaulding and in his and her name, she made that gift to cover up to five years of starting up sled hockey in the area,” she said. “I don’t think anyone knew how much it would take off. It’s grown each year.”
Sled Hockey, also known as sledge, has all the same rules as stand-up hockey. One difference is sled hockey players can’t go backwards, and they also have rules regarding checking so that player safety is emphasized.
“Our team is a unique set of abilities and disabilities,” she said. “Our team has players that have spinal cord injuries, military injuries and acquired injuries.”
One of the players is Christopher Young.
Young was a top-rated Alpine Skier for the U.S. Paralympic team for 30 years, but retired a few years ago from that sport. Having served in the Coast Guard before being injured in an airplane crash in 1982, he craved the excitement of a mission and the thrill of competition.
“When I was a kid, my father taught me to ride a bicycle and that if I got momentum I could achieve balance,” he said. “Sled hockey does that for me, propelling me to go forward and feel my body and feel nature and feel some sort of power over my situation…It has given me the ability to forget that I’m disabled. I grew up running and running fast…Here I was a physical specimen and all of that was cut down by a plane crash that left me half a man in 1982…The only thing that changes that is my family and sport, which gives me back me.”
Mann, 34, was a military veteran who served 11 years and took two tours in Afghanistan. However, a non-combat injury left her foot hopelessly injured. After four failed foot reconstructions, she was left with the decision to amputate her foot.
She had never seen a pro hockey game before, or a hockey game of any kind. However, after the amputation, she had a friend who urged her to get involved in the Spaulding program. After one practice, she said she was hooked and basically lives from Sunday to Sunday in anticipation of their games.
Having served in the military, she said having a team sport helps to fulfill the desire to be part of a mission.
“For those of us who are from the military, it’s the feeling that we are involved in a team effort,” she said. “We didn’t choose to leave the military and it’s really great to be able to have that again. You get that same camaraderie when you’re on a sports team.”
For the Shamrocks, they are working towards getting better, and while they didn’t win on Saturday (they lost 6-1), they did score their first goal – an achievement for the team.
“We got waxed, but we were all upbeat and chipper and happy because of that goal,” said Young. “It wasn’t like a team that just got hammered as we did. For us to let out what we’ve learned, what we’ve been taught and what Spaulding was able to provide for us – was amazing. In that space, with that goal, we were able to create momentum.”