Gardner, USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team set to skate at Colisee

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Thanks to USA Hockey’s growing commitment to disabled hockey players, she still can be.

Gardner, now living in Lewiston, is a member of the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team, an organization she joined less than a year ago after an open tryout in New Jersey.

“I went down there for four days and tried out with the team,” said Gardner, who had only been on a sled for about six months prior to that tryout.

“At the end of the camp, they invited me to travel with the team.”

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Only three years old, the team provides an opportunity for the best sled hockey players from around the country to compete at a national and international level.

Sled hockey was invented at a Stockholm, Sweden, rehabilitation center in the early 1960s by a group of Swedes who, despite their physical disability, wanted to continue playing their favorite sport. The game is played as a team sport and the concepts and rules are the same as “stand-up” hockey. Instead of standing up to skate, participants sit on an adaptive device known as a sled. To propel themselves, players use two shortened hockey sticks with a blade on one end and metal picks for propulsion on the other end.

Gardner is one of the few members of the team that has full functionality in her lower extremities. But on the ice, in a sled, the players are all the same. That, she said, is one of the great aspects of the sport.

“It totally levels the playing field,” Gardner said. “Some of the girls were born with a disability, some of the girls suffered injuries later. This takes all of the disabilities aside and says, ‘OK, this is how everybody is going to play the game.’ It levels it out. Despite missing a leg or legs, being born with spina bifida or having a spinal cord injury later in life, we’re all put together.”

And, thanks to Gardner’s involvement, hockey fans in Central Maine will have a chance Saturday to see the team in action.

The U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team will square off against the Northeast Passage Wildcats, based out of the University of New Hampshire, at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston at 2:30 p.m., just ahead of a scheduled tripleheader featuring JV, girls’ and varsity boys’ teams from rivals Lewiston High School and St. Dominic Academy.

“It’s a chance for everyone else to see what sled hockey is all about,” Gardner said.

A standout athlete at Edward Little High School and then in college at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, her physical prowess, the opportunity to travel and a desire to serve her country led her to join the military.

For a year, Gardner was stationed in Korea. In 2006, there was an accident.

She took a direct hit to the forehead in the line of duty, fracturing her skull and damaging her frontal and temporal lobes. Gardner had problems walking, talking and completing basic tasks. She couldn’t remember her old teammates from college or much of her childhood. She suffered from grand mal seizures that would strike without warning.

With the help of her service dog, Moxie, who can sense impending seizures, Gardner has regained her independence, allowing her to live on her own, go back to school and even coach sports at Lewiston High School.

And, with the advent of the women’s sled hockey program, she can compete again, too.

“Having been an athlete since I could walk, being removed from that when I was in the service and then of course being told I was disabled and couldn’t play anything at all, then to be able to get with a group like this and find out not only can i compete, but be a part of a team again, that was great,” Gardner said. “It’s that camaraderie feeling.”

Compared to its men’s counterpart, the women’s team is still young. According to USA Hockey, the group came together three years ago with just a few young female players, each playing at a different skill level. The goal, according to USA Hockey, is to help the players develop their skills in sled hockey, as well as encourage more girls and women to play.

Last season, in only the second year of the program, the team placed second in its division of the 2011 USA Hockey Disabled Festival, losing only to the USA Wounded Warrior team.

After joining the team last year, and save for one small seizure doctors attributed more to dehydration than anything else, Gardner has been seizure-free for about five months. Now, she gets to share her new-found passion for sled hockey with area hockey enthusiasts, maybe for the only time.

“This is actually the only time we really play for an audience,” Gardner said. “Because each time we get together as a team, it’s in a different city every time, so we don’t really have a home crowd. For me, with this group, this will be my home crowd, probably the only time anyone here will ever see me play. It’s pretty exciting.”

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