A league of their own
They gather on weekends for a competitive game of hockey, bringing with them their sticks, pucks and spirit. There’s an undeniable sense of excitement in the air as players greet one another, throw their jerseys on and prepare to dismantle their opponents — figuratively speaking, of course. The only differences from any other hockey game are that these players use a Wiffle ball instead of a puck, they play on a basketball court, and power wheelchairs fuel their moves.
This is PowerHockey.
The power play
Patrick Hilferty began playing the sport three years ago in his hometown of Drexel Hill, Pa. His high school physical education teachers struggled to find an activity in which Hilferty could participate. Then his physical and occupational therapists came across PowerHockey. Soon a team was created, made up of community members with disabilities.
Now 22, Hilferty, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, plays PowerHockey with Philadelphia PowerPlay. The team of 15 practices twice a month at a school gym or community center. Their disabilities range from muscular dystrophy and cere-bral palsy to cognitive disabilities. But on the court, these men and women put all that behind them and focus on the game.
A PowerHockey game consists of three 15-minute periods and usually lasts about an hour and a half. There are five posi-tions in PowerHockey, and the objective is to move the Wiffle ball with a lightweight, plastic hockey stick toward the oppo-nent's goal, a net measuring 6 feet wide, to score.
If players are unable to hold onto the stick, game rules allow some flexibility. Some, like Hilferty, opt to have the hockey stick taped or clamped to their footrest. It enables him to play an entire game without experiencing fatigue.
"When I first started I thought it was going to be a fun thing to do," says Hilferty, who now manages the team. "But it turns out it's also a beneficial thing." He believes it's a great networking opportunity for players and their parents, all of whom bond by sharing experiences about living with disabilities.
Hilferty has grown from the experience, too. "It's helped me get a better feel for helping people, having a good time, and it has taught me about teamwork," he says.
When Hilferty isn't playing hockey, he busies himself with his studies at Delaware County Community College, where he's working on a degree in general studies with an emphasis on education and psychology. He also volunteers at a local high school, helping disabled students with their schoolwork and — you guessed it — introducing them to PowerHockey.
Josh Cranfill, of Burlington, N.C., is a five-year veteran of the Carolina Fury. Cranfill saw an ad for PowerHockey in a disability magazine and requested more information. Eventually nine players — including one girl — from his area expressed interest and formed a team.
|Carolina Fury players Josh Cranfill (left) and Jonathan Greeson, vice president and president, respectively, of the North Carolina Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association.|
For Cranfill, the 1.5-hour games are just shy of taxing, but well worth it. “Like anything athletic, there is some physical and mental fatigue, but when you start playing, the excitement and adrenaline take over,” the 23-year-old, who has spinal muscular atrophy, says.
PowerHockey, like most sports, allows team members to come in and out of the game to give players a break. As with traditional hockey, penalty calls are a routine part of the game. In fact, players can serve 2- or 5-minute penalties for interference, holding, high sticking and roughing. Fortunately for the safety of all players, PowerHockey has one general rule: Avoid contact as much as possible.
Carolina Fury is slated to play six exhibition games this year, but Cranfill has bigger aspirations. “We’re trying to play more games to raise money, promote awareness of the sport, and get more people involved,” he says. “We’d like to get 15 to 16 people on a team so that it will be easier to have regular games.”
Already the Fury has sponsors and other community support to help pay for equipment, balls and sticks. The North Carolina Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association (NCEWHA) has chipped in, and the team also raises money through exhibition games to help defer the costs of trips and other expenses.
Players on Cranfill’s team have muscular dystrophy, as well as cerebral palsy, paraplegia and spina bifida. To those unsure about trying the sport, Cranfill says PowerHockey gives individuals who require the use of an electric wheelchair the chance to socialize and be around others with like abilities.
“It also gives a person the chance to act on his or her competitive nature through a team sport,” he says. “And it’s a great way to relieve stress, meet new people and spread awareness.”
When not swinging a hockey stick, Cranfill attended Elon University, where he just graduated with a degree in leisure/sport management. He’s now vice president of the NCEWHA.
Matthew “Mo” Gerhardt first read about PowerHockey in a Quest article in 2000. Hockey was his least favorite sport, but he contacted the source listed in the article anyway.
As luck would have it, the team in his area was having an open scrimmage just days later. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Gerhardt powered up his wheelchair and gave it a try. Soon after, the Traverse City, Mich., native joined the team.
The Cobras, as the team is known, are part of the Wheelchair Hockey League, which allows manual wheelchair users to play. It gave Gerhardt, who has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2D, the competitive edge missing in his life.
“Sports have always been a big thing in my life,” he says. His dad was a high school coach, his brother played in sports, and now Gerhardt could get off the sidelines and into the game.
Eventually the power wheelchair members of the Cobras formed a team under the U.S. Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association called the Michigan Mustangs. Gerhardt couldn’t resist. In 2004, he joined his second hockey team.
The team, most of whom have some form of muscular dystrophy, is made up of 10 men and women of all ages and abilities.
|Bryce Smith (left) mixes it up with Greg Smith (no relation) of the Philadelphia PowerPlay.|
“Don’t worry where you’re at physically,” he tells people. He’s seen players on court who guide their wheelchairs via sip-and-puff joystick controls.
“PowerHockey is great because it lends itself to someone who doesn’t have a lot of upper body strength,” Gerhardt says. “You can rely on your chair for momentum to really power your shot.”
The Mustangs compete nationally and internationally against teams from the United States and Canada. While one must consider the added expense in traveling, as well as transportation and health care issues, Gerhardt welcomes the experience.
When he’s not juggling court time for two hockey teams, Gerhardt works full time at Michigan State University, as an academic adviser.
A team of your own
Starting a PowerHockey team is easy, according to Hilferty and Cranfill. “All you need are a couple of goals, a place to play and some inexpensive hockey sticks,” says Hilferty. To start a team or league, contact the U.S. Electric Wheelchair Hockey Association (USEWHA), which will provide you with the information.
Gerhardt notes that finding enough players to form an internationally competitive team may take some time. He also points out that there are many other teams across the country that play but don’t compete at the tournament level. Those teams are usually easier to form, cost-effective if you find donated gym space and just as much fun, too.
In some cases, the USEWHA will send teams the necessary equipment to get started. To learn more, visit the official PowerHockey Web site.