Sled hockey gives disabled veteran new lease on ice

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WEST PARIS — Falling into a slump after his multiple sclerosis diagnosis last year, disabled veteran Will Rolfe discovered the New England Warriors sled hockey team and got a new lease on life.

The 28-year-old West Paris resident learned in June 2016 he was struck with the central nervous system disease that disrupts communication between the brain and the rest of the body. An MRI showed active brain lesions, a sign of the disease. 

They saw quite a few old lesions (that) traced it back to my military time,” Rolfe said.

The 2007 Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School graduate served three years of active duty at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and one year at Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Three years after he returned home the lesions were discovered.

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His whole left side was paralyzed.

It took about a year. It took a long time recovering (through) a lot of physical therapy … and in that time is when I found the team, the New England Warriors,” Rolfe said. “It’s a nonprofit and it’s mainly made up of disabled veterans.”

So what is sled hockey?

It uses the same equipment as regular hockey plus special sticks and sleds. Players use two sticks that have metal picks to propel themselves across the ice.

The sleds, or sledges, we use consist of a frame of aluminum tubing, a bucket which the player is strapped into, and two ice skating blades under the player’s seat,” according to the New England Warriors’ website.

It is an incredible amount of core – that is the biggest thing, being able to weave and turn and not fall over,” Rolfe said.

“I have always enjoyed watching hockey, just never played. It is one of those sports you kind of have to start young to get into,” he said.

Rolfe, who works at Bridgton Hospital while pursuing a degree in social work at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, learned about the New England Warriors from a co-worker whose sister was the captain of the team.

The captain and co-founder is Christy “Icebox” Gardner, who is a medically retired Army veteran and also plays on the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team. She loaned Rolfe the equipment to get started.

The New England Warriors is a chapter of the nonprofit USA Warriors, which is comprised of wounded and ill service members and veterans and supporters. Most of the players are from Maine but one is from Nashua, New Hampshire. 

It was cool because you’re with other veterans who kind of understand your way of thinking and kind of encourage you to keep working at getting better,” Rolfe said.

But not all team members are veterans. Mahlia “Mini Mao” Schneck, for example, is a high school student and a double amputee who Rolfe described as “awesome.”

Pretty much it was designed … for disabled veterans and if we have other people who are disabled come along, we … don’t say no,” Rolfe said. “It’s hard enough to find enough people for the team anyway.”

Last year, the New England Warriors claimed the title of North Eastern Sled Hockey League 2016-2017 season B League Champions.

We were champions for the season and we won the tournament as well. Not to brag,” Rolfe said, smiling.

Rolfe described his first game as “terrifying.”

I had only practiced twice and I was in for the whole period, barely switching out. I was like, ‘Oh my God I don’t know where I am supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing,'” he said. “Luckily, I caught on pretty quick. Now it’s more fun than terrifying.”

Now, he finds relief physically and mentally when he hits the ice.

Once I get on the ice and am able to skate, it is so much better. You get that hour away from everything else,” he said. “With MS I have a heat intolerance so if I were to run, once my body gets overheated my leg acts up. … With sled hockey you’re on the ice, which is cooling enough.”

On the ice, Rolfe is known as “The Rookie,” but hopes to earn his stripes and change his name to “The Show Pony” this season. He is number 15 and plays forward on either wing, with his focus on scoring points.

Rolfe’s personal goal is to fill the rink with as many fans as possible for the Warriors’ home game this season. The game is set for Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Camden Nation Bank Maine Ice Vault, 203 Whitten Road, Hallowell. The game is free.

For more information, visit www.newenglandwarriors.org or www.facebook.com/NEwarriorssledhockey/

eplace@sunmediagroup.net 

PASSION — After being diagnosed last year with multiple sclerosis, West Paris resident and Air Force veteran Will Rolfe found his passion in sled hockey with the New England Warriors, which is a Maine team made mostly up of disabled veterans.

CHAMPS — Members of the sled hockey team the New England Warriors, including West Paris resident Will Rolfe, touch their sticks to their trophy after winning the Northeastern Sled Hockey League championship last season.

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