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Sled hockey tournament benefits Wounded Warriors project

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CANTON — The players strapped themselves to their custom sledges and launched across the ice in pursuit of the puck at the north country’s first sled hockey tournament Saturday.

Donations from spectators benefited the Wounded Warriors project. Many of the players were wounded warriors themselves, part of Fort Drum’s year-old sled hockey team.

Sledge hockey was invented in Sweden in the 1960s. It came to the United States in the 1990s and is a popular event at the Paralympic Games.

Teams from Ottawa, Syracuse and Albany also came to SUNY Canton’s Roos House Athletic Center to compete on Saturday.

The rules are pretty much the same as in normal hockey, but the equipment looks a lot different. Each specially made sledge costs $550. The Fort Drum team purchased its equipment through money raised from sponsors last year.

Players wield a pair of shortened hockey sticks with spikes on the ends to propel themselves across the ice.

For those still getting used to it, it is not an easy sport.

“It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s a nice rush, but it’s exhausting,” said Sgt. Richard W. Williamson Jr., a Niagara Falls native stationed at Fort Drum.

Sgt. Williamson has been in the Army for more than a decade, and has seen tours in Iraq and Kuwait. The years have taken a toll on the muscles in his knee, and he pulled his shoulder while working on a vehicle.

Saturday was his first time playing sled hockey.

Most of the players were wounded or disabled in some way. Some had prosthetic legs.

“It gives me an alternative sport to do to keep me active,” said Sgt. Robert E. George, South Carolina.

Sgt. George has three slipped discs in his back, so he can no longer play the sports he used to.

Although balancing on the sled and propelling himself with the sticks took plenty of practice, Sgt. George quickly regained the hockey fundamentals he learned as a kid.

“Puck handling kind of comes back,” he said.

“We wanted to do something for our wounded soldiers, to learn and adapt to something like sled hockey,” said Mark J. McKenna, a civil engineer at Fort Drum.

Mr. McKenna started a sled hockey program for wounded warriors at Fort Drum last year, and this year he decided to turn it into a tournament.

“We’re trying to grow the sport, get these guys some activity and let them know they’re not forgotten,” Mr. McKenna said.

Aside from the Fort Drum team, most of the players Saturday were not soldiers.

Many of the teams have been around longer than Fort Drum’s; the Central New York Flyers have been practicing every winter Saturday for four years.

Syracuse resident Cody M. Arnold said that although the sport is getting more attention, it still is hard to find people to play against.

“It’s not very popular; there’s not a lot of teams,” Mr. Arnold said.

Fort Drum lost all three games, despite Paralympic gold medalist Adam Page, Buffalo, playing on the team.

The Ottawa Valley Falcons took home gold Saturday, winning all three games in the round-robin tournament.

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