ROCKVILLE, Md. — The build up to the NHL season begins in earnest on Friday, as the Washington Capitals open training camp at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. But the night before the pomp and circumstance of 18 days of camp, of press conferences and build-up around the health and readiness of Alex Ovechkin’s knee, a different kind of hockey game took place.
On Thursday night at the Rockville Ice Arena, the USA Warriors took on the San Antonio Rampage in a sled hockey game. To understand the significance of a contest like this, you have to understand how each player has come to be here this night.
USA Warriors Ice Hockey is a non-profit organization that provides standing ice hockey and sled hockey for U.S. veterans. Both teams play Thursday, but the feature event is sled hockey.
“Our sled team we built from nothing,” explains Thomas Hirsch, President of the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program. “We started with patients at Walter Reed who went to our clinics in the course of two years, they’ve really built themselves up. They’ve won everything you can possibly win without competing at the national level.”
That’s where Thursday night’s opponent comes into play.
“Several of the generals at Walter Reed wanted us to play the San Antonio team,” Hirsch says, which is affiliated with Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. “It’s a friendly game. It’s not for the Stanley Cup or anything like that. But you’ll see how competitive the guys are.”
For those who have never seen a sled hockey game, the basic actions required simply to participate require immense physical strength and hand-eye coordination. Players propel themselves with two shortened sticks, holding them by the blades and pushing off the ice with the base of the handles.
The sleds themselves are seats propped atop a double blade. A metal carriage reachesout in front, with an additional plastic rest blade for balance. On the front, a metal mounting serves as a rudder. Or as a battering ram.
The players are held in by thin, crosshatching safety belts. Those fortunate enough to still have their lower legs are strapped in at the ankles as well.
When they lose a stick, it’s more like losing a skate. There’s no quick circle back to bench for a new one.
The game is even tougher on the goalies. They have to use their lone stick to propel themselves into position, but lack both the giant leg blocker pads and the physical leverage of standard hockey goalies. This exposes far more of the net behind them and restricts their ability to block top corner shots.
Warriors goalie Bo Reichenbach deflects a puck wide for one of his many saves. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Thursday night’s USA Warriors goalie was Bo Reichenbach. The Billings, Montana, native was injured on July 17, 2012 by a roadside IED, losing both of his legs above the knee. A hockey player throughout his youth, he had never heard of sled hockey until it was suddenly his only option.
“Hockey has been a big, big part of my recovery,” he says before the contest. “I thought about it, I was like