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Second Great Salt Cup raises awareness

by Tracie Fails

In the opening minutes of the National Ability Center’s Great Salt Cup sled hockey tournament, Greg Shaw immediately stands out on the rink. Fighting for a loose puck, he slams an opponent into the wall and sends it sailing to a teammate. He pursues his shot in a mad dash across the ice, sporting speed and agility well beyond his 17 years. As the game progresses, the overall intensity of the game increases and the strong athleticism on the rink becomes apparent. What isn’t so obvious is that Shaw and many others are disabled.

Born without legs, Shaw is one of the National Ability Center Golden Eagle’s star players on a team that includes participants with and without disabilities. The 17-year-old senior at the Winter Sports School for disabled athletes is on the U.S. Development Team and plans to compete on the U.S. sled hockey team at the 2010 Paralympic Games. But Shaw said the level of competition doesn’t matter to him as much as the game itself. He just likes the thrill of playing hockey. "I love the pace, that I have to rely on my teammates. It’s all a lot of fun," he said.

The NAC’s sled hockey program manager, Lauren Artesani, said that an enjoyable environment for all the participants was one of her main goals for the second annual tournament, which took place March 9-11.

"Foremost, I just want a good turn out that’s safe, fun and fair," she said before the competition began. Her other objective was to give disabled athletes the chance to prove that their level of intensity can equal that other athletes.

"In every breath I take, I’m trying to raise awareness about disabilities and recreation. I think people are really surprised when they see the elite, fast-paced level that rules sled hockey. These players are just as aggressive as in regular hockey." That athletes with and without disabilities can compete with each other on the same level adds to its inclusiveness, another goal of the NAC. Outreach coordinator Jessica Kunzer said the center continuously strives to create a welcoming environment for everyone.

"Our aim is to integrate friends and families and not segregate," she said. "Anyone, regardless of abilities or disabilities, can participate in sled hockey."

This year’s Great Salt Cup, held at the National Ability Center’s ice rink drew teams Denver, Phoenix, and Chicago. Artesani said she was pleased with the turnout and hoped the tournament would build support for sled hockey in the West. "It’s a really big sport in New England and along the East Coast now, but not here yet. So it’s nice to bring it to our backyard," she said.

Colorado Avalanche coach Gary Smith shares Artesani’s desire to grow awareness for sled hockey among the Mountain states. He founded a nonprofit organization called the Western Sled Hockey League and said he hopes to create more teams across the West. "I’d really like to get this as organized as any regular hockey league," Smith said. The lifelong hockey player and coach said he was burned out on the sport until Colorado’s sled hockey team asked him to help them. "I thought I was sick of hockey, but this is different. It’s special. These guys were deserving of real coaching," Smith said. In its fourth year of competition, Smith’s Avalanche team placed third of four teams in the Great Salt Cup.

The Eagles won for the second year in a row, but not without a fight from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Blackhawks. After losing its first duel with Chicago on Friday, the Eagles rallied back to win in the finals the next day. The Phoenix Coyotes placed fourth but enjoyed the tournament despite losing their losses. "It’s been a very friendly tournament," Phoenix coach Paul Crane said.

The sled hockey season has ended for the year, but Kunzer said she hopes the sport will continue to grow with more opportunities for athletes of all abilities.


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