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Ohio Warriors Sled Hockey - More Than a Game

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For these Wounded Warriors, sled hockey isn't just about sleds, sticks, and pucks. It's about so much more.

Shane Parsons has had both of his legs amputated above the knee, but he's a faster skater than I am.

You read that correctly.

As I glide around the ice on my hockey skates while the Ohio Warriors sled hockey team warms up doing some sledding drills, I'm struck by how nimbly Shane moves in his sled. He weaves inside and outside of pylons. He turns his hips and stops on a dime. He uses his amazing upper body strength to generate straight line speed.

We at the Cannon were contacted about interviewing Shane to talk about his experience with sled hockey. I whole-heartedly accepted, and was very much looking forward to recording a podcast with Shane via Skype. As fate would have it, my new computer wasn't responding to the software I'd used in the past to record the podcasts, so as Shane patiently waited while I scrambled to fix things, his mom suggested something even more interesting: the Ohio Warriors were practicing in Columbus the following week. I should just meet them there.

And that's when Shane hit me with the best part: why don't I just bring my gear and jump on the ice with them?

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"Any contact sport, I'm all about it." --Shane Parsons

Shane grew up in Fostoria, Ohio, which is in the northwestern part of the state. He played football and wrestled in high school, and was generally into contact sports. He didn't play hockey. He didn't know the role hockey would play in his life. Shane joined the Army. However, after an IED caused him to suffer a traumatic brain injury as well as the injuries to his legs in 2006, he returned to the United States for his medical rehabilitation.

After Shane was injured in September of 2006, he was sent to Landsthul Germany Medical Center, and later to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC in October of that year. After receiving treatment in DC, he was transferred to a VA center in Minneapolis, MN until April 2007 when he was given he outpatient status. Shane was heading to BAMC in San Antonio, but found his way to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Colorado. There, he was presented with choices for sports: downhill skiing, cross country skiing, or sled hockey. Shane chose hockey, and, "I caught the hang of it pretty well," he said. Little did he know the role it would play over the next few years.

Once in San Antonio, Shane was partnered with the wonderful people from Operation Comfort, which is a San Antonio-based organization started by an American Airlines flight attendant inspired by seeing veterans returning to the US from overseas. Via OC, Shane was encouraged to participate in a new sled hockey team being formed by former US Paralympian Lonnie Hannah. The team was built around a group of players who had never played hockey before, but fell in love with the game.

For those veterans, it was about more than just a game, however. From a 2009 article about the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team, in Shane's words then:

"I’m trying to do the best I can. The only thing you can do is get better. It’s a lot of stepping up the bars and trying to push yourself and what you’re capable of doing, especially being a double amputee. You get a lot of frustration going on, and it comes back to teamwork, hanging out with your friends, making another bond and brotherhood of a different kind. We push each other, we get grumpy with each other, we yell at each other."

I hadn't yet read that article when I talked to Shane and other members of the Ohio Warriors. I would get a very good look at just how true that was and is.

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Sometimes, you CAN go home again.

Shane was medically retired from the military in 2009. He spent almost a full year in San Marcos, Texas, in an assisted living facility in order to work on being more independent as he continued to recover. At that point, he was ready to come back home to Ohio. Shane's love of sports led him to coaching for 7th and 8th grade football, and later varsity football at his alma mater, which helped get him back into the culture of his hometown. But, he also missed playing sled hockey, and as fortune would have it someone who had been there at the very beginning of his sled hockey journey was also from Ohio.

Shane met Brian Rosen at that National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Colorado. Rosen was helping to run the hockey clinic there, and was with Shane that first time he got strapped into a sled. They stayed in touch over Shane's time in Texas, and upon his decision to move back to Ohio.

"We stayed in close contact up to his move back to Fostoria," Rosen informed me. "I had thought about having a disabled veterans hockey program once Shane moved back to Fostoria. At the 2013 National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a contact at the Disabled American Veterans hooked me up with the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program in DC." That got the ball rolling.

Rosen asked Shane to join him once the time came. "Whatever you need," was his response, Shane told me. And so, in 2014, the Ohio Warriors was born.

"We held our first sled hockey clinic at the Ice Haus on January 30, 2014, and held a follow up clinic March 1, 2014," Rosen explained. "At that point I thought there were enough players interested (seven at the time) to move forward and start the program and begin regular practices. I consider the 'birth' of the program the date of our first [January 2014] clinic."

At the moment, the team has been practicing together for a year, and Rosen is proud to see the growth. He pointed out that he's the only non-military member of the club, as a good chunk of the coaching has been picked up by Jay Favuzzi, an Army veteran with several overseas combat deployments and currently a member of the Reserves. He is also the Military and Veterans Services Manager at Columbus State Community College, and a youth hockey coach in his free time. In short, he's a perfect fit for this group.

During the practice, Jay lines up the Warriors in drills, and helps them learn hockey positioning. Rosen tells me he's happy to have Jay around, given his bond with the players of military service and combat experience. Rosen hopes one day to find another experienced military member to help out with the overall management of the team, so that it can be "all military".

The Warriors are in a newly formed sled hockey league called the Pioneer League, organized through USA Hockey. They will begin play in October of this year, and they will play monthly tournaments within their league all the way through March of 2016. Rosen tells me that, as of now, there are teams out of Northern Ohio, Pittsburgh, the Buffalo VA, and Ft. Drum in New York. There are also teams based in Cincinnati, Syracuse, and Kentucky that are considering joining the league in the future.

Though the team--by the rules of the organization they play within--is allowed to have two "able-bodied" players, all of the players on the team have some type of disability, be it physical injuries like Shane's, PTSD, or in the case of goalie David Misner, Multiple Sclerosis. He tells me he was drawn to the sport as MS has robbed him of his ability to play sports using his legs. Playing goalie in sled hockey is perfect, he says, because he doesn't have to worry about them.

As the players are doing their sledding drills, I skate around the zone and send shots Misner's way. I'm struck by how perfectly still he sits in his sled in the crease, but as soon as I pick a spot and shoot the puck, he makes a lightning quick move and blocks the shot. Often those moves involve swinging the legs of his sled like a gate or a pendulum, effectively taking the bottom of the net away on either side. Multiple times I'm sure I have him beat, and each time he blocks the shot. I manage about 15-20 shots, and only solve him twice. And this is while I'm on skates with my regular stick.

As I watch the drills and gather pucks to keep Misner busy with my shots, it becomes clearer and clearer. This is all hockey. The rules are the same. The number of players on the ice and the zone rules are the same, and you can check, other than certain special regulations about colliding your sled into another player ("You can't T-bone anyone," several players tell me independently, making me think this might be a favorite of some players). But, at the end of the day, it's still just hockey, pure and simple.

And as Jay instructs a five-person unit about offensive zone positioning and I have this epiphany, I realize that it's time.

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"I know where I should be, but I just can't make myself get there." --Dan P.

This was no other way for me to really get a true feel for sled hockey than to strap myself into a sled and give it a try.

As I worked myself into a couple of their team drills, I found that while I've watched and played hockey for awhile now, nothing truly prepares you for the experience of that first time in a sled. Rosen brought a sled to practice, and strapped me in (at my request) about halfway through. He handed me the sticks, and told me to move around until I felt comfortable and then to join in.

First and foremost, the sensation is not unlike skiing, in that you need to use your upper body to lead yourself into the turns. Shane tells me "it's all in the hips" which is understood, but easier said than done for me. I paddle my way around one end of the rink for a couple of minutes, a few hoots and cheers of encouragement ringing over from the Warriors practicing at the other end.

I decide I'm as ready as I'll ever be.

During the first drill my own competitive adrenaline comes bubbling up, but I'm instantly surprised at how difficult it is to keep up. We're working on a drill on offense in keeping the puck in the zone and moving around from position to position. I'm assigned to man one of the points, and while I know exactly where I need to move to cover my position as the puck moves, I am damn close to physically unable to do it.

At one point, I go all out (as much as I can) toward the wall to cover as a puck is rimming around, only to realize that I have no idea how to stop. Much to the delight of the Warriors, I essentially ditch into the wall, ending up on my side. I get some more cheers of encouragement, and I instantly realize why: I've somehow managed to keep the puck in the zone by basically selling out.

And, it's then that I realize: that's largely what this is all about.

They don't care that I'm essentially an interloper, a non-disabled, non-military person trying to play their game. They don't care that I clearly don't know what I'm doing out there. All they care about at that moment is that, even though I had no idea what the hell I was doing, I went for it. I tried as hard as I could, and even though it wasn't pretty, I made the play I was supposed to make.

And that made finishing the practice a breeze (though later on, my abs and triceps would beg to differ).

This is the true essence of the Ohio Warriors. They are people from different places, different backgrounds, but they all share one thing in common: they serve our country, they have made grand sacrifices to do so, and they come together on the ice to be part of a Unit again. Sled hockey has allowed them to forge a new (with apologies to Warrior Emily Hamilton) Brotherhood on the ice. To work together. To build one another up. To achieve a common goal.

I can't possibly begin to fathom what life is like for any of the individuals on the Warriors team. But, for an hour on the ice, no one was disabled. Everyone was equal. I got to feel like I was part of their Team, and it was a truly humbling honor.

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"There's a lot of heart and soul on our team." --Shane Parsons

The team is on the ice to have fun, but they're also on the ice to work hard. Anyone that doesn't think sled hockey is as physical as stand-up hockey hasn't been hit by another sled. As I moved to clear the zone during a scrimmage drill, Hamilton ("She's tough as shit," Shane tells me after, and I know he's telling the truth) gave me a pretty solid bump from behind with her sled, and I most definitely felt it. Shane tells me that in high-level sled hockey, the fastest collisions measure out in force the same as a 30 MPH car crash.

In short, it's not for the faint of heart.

But, heart is exactly what these players have in spades. Sled hockey is something for them to look forward to each week. "It helps," Shane says. "You're out on the ice, you're exercising, you're cognitive: you're looking, you're talking. You're moving, your body is moving. You have to make the right adjustments."

"Hockey changed [Shane] a lot," his mother Cindy tells me. "Physically, and mentally, and cognitively. It helps his memory, because with the brain injury he has cognitive deficits and some short term and long term memory losses.

"The change in him--mentally and physically--is immense. It gives him purpose, because he missed that Team and camaraderie, and this fits the bill for that."

Indeed, it's not just the hockey itself. "Being part of a Unit, part of a team again... that's what it's all about," Shane says. "It's awesome, you get to score, you get to hit guys. But, it's just working with each other again, that camaraderie."

And, for the players, knowing that everyone they're working with is working through some of the same issues with respect to their disabilities--and even just having that physical outlet for any of their frustrations in that area--only serves to boost that bond. "Some of the guys, like myself, have anger issues," Shane says. "I leave it all on the ice. When it's game time, the gloves are off. Everyone is dealing with their own thing. We're there to help as much as we can. We know what's it's like. It doesn't matter if you were in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or the Gulf War. We've all been a part of something.

"There's a lot of heart and soul on our team."

It's clear, not only from the team's willingness to let me crash their practice, but also from their interactions with each other--and with each other's families--that the Warriors are a close-knit group that is indeed full of heart and soul. Players' children are at the practice, and as Shane, his mother Cindy, and I chat, the children each stop to give Shane a hug and say, "I love you."

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Taking the Next Step

The Ohio Warriors is a group that is reliant on a lot of things. As anyone who plays any kind of organized hockey in Columbus knows, ice time can be tough to come by.

"It's tough to get ice time," Shane says, "but we have a lot of people that step up and help us out, and I'm grateful for that. I'm not mad that we don't get enough ice time. I'm glad that we're able to get on the ice."

They've had the chance to interact with the Blue Jackets, as well. "Coach Richards came out and helped support us," Shane tells me. "That was a huge thing for us. I was like a kid in a candy store. We got to go into the locker room and interact with the guys and the coach. He gave us a little speech. A lot of us took it to heart."

I asked if Richards got fired up at all, given that his public persona is one of constant stoicism. "Oh yeah," Shane laughs. "That coach is one not to be reckoned with. He had a nice talk. He was sincere, and stern, but grateful for our service and appreciative. I'm glad that we have a good coach for the Blue Jackets. And, people supporting us is what it's about."

And, while hockey is a great sport, this goes so far beyond hockey. "It's very important to have something for our wounded veterans," Cindy says, "to give them a reason to continue with their lives, and to make a difference with each other. Rather than sitting at home, in four walls, in a dark room, this is so much better for their psyche and their physical well being. And not only that, it brings the families together."

For Shane, now that the team is finally coming together and getting set to play in a new league, the future looks good. "[I'd like to keep playing for awhile] if I can," he says. "I wouldn't mind trying to go for the National Team. [I'll keep playing] as long as I can do it. But, hopefully soon, I'll maybe start a family." With his girlfriend Jen by his side, things look positive in that last regard.

Though, with his mom there as well as the rest of the Team, it's safe to say he already has a pretty amazing family.

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Corrections: Some incorrect information about Shane's service history was included in a previous version of this article. Apologies to Shane and his family. In addition, the year of his receiving outpatient status was previously listed as 2008, instead of 2007. I regret these oversights. --DP

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Author's Note - How You Can Help The Warriors

As I'm sure you all know, ice time and gear cost money, and sled hockey gear is no exception (and in some cases, more expensive). The goal is to make sure that none of the players ever have to pay to play. There are several different ways you can get involved to help people like Shane and the Team. First and foremost, you can go to the Ohio Warriors website and donate to them directly.

Beyond that, there are other organizations that are helpful, as well. Shane has a community support worker through the Wounded Warrior Project's Independence Program, who will often-times drive him to and from practices.

Finally, the entire team will be in the Upper Arlington Fourth of July Parade, so if you're in the area make sure to give them an extra cheer. They've certainly earned it.

Thanks

My most sincere thanks go to Shane and Cindy Parsons, to Brian Rosen, and to Rebecca Wardell for putting us all together. And, of course, to every member of the Ohio Warriors. To allow me to come to a practice, share the ice, and to sit and talk... you are all very gracious with your time, your stories, and I am forever indebted to you for the experience, and I can't wait to do it again. --DP