Austin Blades Gives Disabled Children Full-Contact Hockey Experience
By Megan Mikaelian
In many ways, Grant Blair is like any other competitive athlete. He’s dedicated, driven and passionate. He was also born with Arthrogryposis, a disease that restricts the movement of the joints in his legs and prevents him from walking without the help of his two royal blue canes.
And yet every Sunday morning at 7:30 sharp, the 11-year-old shows up at The Pond Hockey Club in north Austin to chase a puck down the ice in a rough-and-tumble practice session with his sled hockey team, the Austin Blades.
Sled hockey, or sledge hockey as it is also known, is the Paralympic equivalent of ice hockey. It’s a full contact sport in which players sit strapped into a 10-pound plastic sled with a long blade on the bottom. In place of a regular hockey stick, players carry two shorter sticks with blades on the ends that allow them to pass the puck and maneuver their sleds.
It is a highly competitive sport, and Blair relishes the competition. “I just feel really good when I’m on the ice,” he said. “No one can tell me what I can and can’t do.”
Texas is second only to California in its share of the total number of disabled people in the United States, according to a 2013 study conducted by the Texas Workforce Investment Council. The same study estimated there are 90,894 people with physical disabilities in Travis County alone.
In Austin there are any number of organized sports teams for children with disabilities, including the Miracle League, a recreational baseball league where players are partnered with “buddies” on the field and everyone gets to score in each inning. As a self-proclaimed lover of all sports, Blair began playing baseball for the Miracle League when he was 9 years old.
The Austin Blades are something of a rarity in that the team allows disabled children to play full-contact hockey. And Blair, one of only four kids on a team made up of 16 grown men, thrives in that environment.
“He is very competitive,” Grant’s mother, Mari Blair, said. Sled hockey “was the first sport he was introduced to where he’s on a team that has games and tournaments and keeps score.”
Frank Dorval has been a driving force behind Blair’s passion for sled hockey. Like Blair, Dorval, 55, uses canes to walk, and he’s been playing since 2007. As president of the Blades in 2013, Dorval wanted to start a kids’ team, but kids and adults play together because there aren’t enough kids to form their own team.
“Frank just took him under wing,” Mari Blair said. “He built his sled for him, provided the sticks. Frank has just been very sweet and has guided [Grant] through this whole process.”
Ice hockey is notorious as a no-holds-barred contact sport, and sled hockey is no exception. Dorval said the club takes extra precautions to protect the kids while they practice with the adults, but they do not coddle them. He says it’s important for the kids to know they have no limitations in at least one aspect of their lives.
“Hockey is an acquired sport,” Dorval said. “A lot of people don’t know about it, but as soon as they get in a sled, it’s freedom. There’s no limitation to what you can do except for who you are. It’s amazing.”