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To sled-hockey players, the ice offers more than a smooth surface: It represents a level playing field.

At work or school, one might be the man in the wheelchair or the awkwardly lurching girl with leg braces and a cane.

On the rink, though, they all find freedom for the mind and body.

"I never really had anything I enjoyed doing or could do," said Scott Jones, 18, of Granville, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

"I would just stay at home and play video games all the time."

About four years ago, his parents heard about the Ohio Sled Hockey club and got him involved.

"It has made all the difference in the world to my son," said his father, Phelps.

In sled hockey, a sport for people with disabilities, players sit in bucket seats atop sleds equipped with skate blades. They propel themselves with cut-down hockey sticks, with picks embedded in the butt ends.

The accommodations give players not only much-welcome mobility but also a coveted feeling of inclusion.

"For a long time, I felt like I was an outcast," said Morgan Hosbrough, 17, of Columbus, who was born with a spinal condition that left her partially paralyzed. "Now, I have found people like me. It has given me a sense of belonging. I feel like I have found a community where I fit in."

The sense of community should be strong this weekend at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, where the Aladdin Shrine Temple will sponsor its 11th annual sled-hockey tournament. Six teams from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan will participate.

Sled hockey, which originated in Sweden in the early 1960s, has been a men's Paralympic sport since the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway. Last year, Hosbrough was selected for the U.S. women's national team. The women are hoping to gain Paralympic status in 2018.

The rules are virtually the same as in standard hockey, complete with checking and penalties.

The Ohio Sled Hockey club was founded in 2001 by the Adaptive Adventure Sports Coalition, a nonprofit offering people with disabilities opportunities to participate in physical activities.

The same year, New Albany residents Mike and Kelly Fenster learned about sled hockey. Their son, Michael -- just 18 months old at the time -- was born without a tailbone (a condition called sacral agenesis), leaving him with partial paralysis in his legs.

"We strapped him into a sled, practically duct-taped him in," Mrs. Fenster said.

Three years later, the Fensters helped the Ohio Sled Hockey club split from the coalition to become its own nonprofit. Now, Mr. Fenster coaches; his wife is the general manager; and Michael, 14, still plays.

In the beginning, Mrs. Fenster said, the state probably had about a half-dozen sled-hockey players. The club grew slowly, eventually fielding two teams -- one for juniors and another for novices of any age.

In 2011, with the introduction of the Ohio United -- a team for advanced players -- participation increased substantially, Mrs. Fenster said.

Now, in addition to the Columbus-based Ohio Blades, Cincinnati and Cleveland field teams under the Ohio Sled Hockey banner. Mrs. Fenster estimates that 60 to 70 people statewide -- including at least 15 adults -- play the sport.

Michael Cupp is among the adult participants.

At a recent practice at the Dublin Chiller, the 39-year-old Cupp looked a bit out of place seated in his sled next to grade schoolers.

The practice was only his third, he said, so he was comfortable with the situation.

"These . . . (kids) have so much to teach me."

Cupp has spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column), which, during the past decade, has significantly weakened his legs.

He was attracted to sled hockey for the same reason that the younger players were: the chance to be active.

"I love it because I go home and feel like I got a workout," he said. "And the people are all amazing, so, I mean, you get that camaraderie and that team effect."

Cupp, in the process of relocating to central Ohio from the Dayton area, said he is too inexperienced to play in the weekend tournament -- one of about a dozen in which the club participates throughout its season, which runs from October to March.

The club has a budget of $10,000 to $25,000 a season, Mrs. Fenster said. It conducts fundraisers and receives donations from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Aladdin Shrine Temple and individuals.

The idea is to keep costs down for participants such as Scott Jones, who played sports as a young child -- until muscle weakness forced him to watch his friends from the sidelines.

Sled hockey gives him a sport of his own.

"It has definitely helped me grow as a person," he said. "I have never felt what I feel being on the team."

kgordon@dispatch.com

@kgdispatch

* The 11th annual Aladdin Invitational sled-hockey tournament will take place from 8:20 a.m. to 8 p.m. today and 7:50 a.m. to 5:20 p.m. Sunday at the OhioHealth Ice Haus, 200 W. Nationwide Blvd. Admission: free. For information about the Ohio Sled Hockey club, visit www.pointstreak sites.com/view/ohiosledhockey.

 
January 18, 2014
 
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