Opinion: Disabled Hockey Deserves Better

Pro players
min - read
Max Rosenthal
Pro players
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Many people are working towards a better version of hockey: one that constantly reassesses and improves policies affecting people with disabilities.
Disabled hockey works when able-bodied people are willing to remove barriers that adversely affect the disabled community, even when those barriers are common in other spaces and especially when removing those barriers is considered cost-prohibitive.
Hockey will continue limiting the disabled community until more meaningful changes are made to the structure and process of the sport.

Best Intentions

As a kid, the only hockey jobs I thought about were starting goalie positions in the NHL.

I played nearly a decade of AAA hockey and would eventually walk on to Canisius College’s NCAA Division I team as a practice goalie. I would have to stop playing hockey in order to find my way back to the game.

While getting my undergraduate psychology degree at Canisius, I wanted to be a therapist. I started working with a psychologist, Dr. Drew Messer, providing family therapy for children who have disabilities. Just before finishing my B.A. and after my time on the Division I team, I was a passenger in a car crash that fractured my L2 vertebra.

The nurses told my parents I might not survive more than a few hours.

Days after the crash, the doctor assured me that the new hardware surgically fusing my lower back would be durable, allowing me to make a mostly complete recovery. But the medical professionals warned I should avoid contact sports like hockey. I stayed off the ice for months while managing my recovery and wondering how hockey would be a part of life going forward.

The sport had been a central pillar of my life since I was a toddler. Then, I couldn’t take a shower without assistance, let alone play goalie.

The condition of my back kept me from other things, too. I missed a semester of school and was unable to sit comfortably enough for family therapy sessions with Dr. Messer. Sitting in general became a chore, making me keen to assess each chair for the amount of discomfort it might cause. I even started carrying a small pillow so that I could adapt chairs as necessary when out of the house.

The world started to seem much less accessible than it had before. Spending most of my time in bed, I was eventually cleared for more upright activity after a couple months passed. Dr. Messer welcomed me back to his sessions where participants occasionally used dry-erase markers to draw on my chest brace, now doubling as a whiteboard. While I was ecstatic to return to some of my daily activities, I couldn’t help but spend more time thinking about how society is built to make life challenging for people with disabilities. Everything from showers without grab bars to sudden strobe lights to rampless entryways conjured the feelings of a deeply unjust world.

I was aware of these issues prior to the car crash, but now inaccessibility seemed that much harder to ignore.

Against the surgeon's best wishes, I returned to the ice right after I was cleared to walk without a torso brace around four months after the collision. I missed hockey desperately.

If anything, my recovery and return to hockey gave me more motivation to be a therapist. I was spared from a debilitating, or worse, lethal accident because of luck: fortunate to have the resources necessary to recover, fortunate to not be in a lot of pain.

I wanted to help others get better, too.

After all, I had come to believe that I understood what it was like to have a disability. Surely my improved understanding of disability would help me as an aspiring psychotherapist. This feeling led me to the graduate social work program at the University of Pittsburgh where I would continue learning to be a therapist. It took me two full semesters of social work training to realize I might be going in the wrong direction.

Unaccessible pavement.
Weeds protrude from cracked pavement that once served as a wheelchair ramp

‘Get Better’

Pitt staff and students helped me realize I was still often more concerned with helping people with disabilities “get better” rather than helping create a better world for folks in the disabled community.

This is a subtle distinction, but it is the difference between blaming people for their disabilities and genuinely helping. The car crash may have broadened my understanding of disability, but it still didn’t really show me what it’s like to have a disability.

All I had to deal with after the crash was no hockey or in-person classes for a couple of months.

This was nothing compared to living every day in a world designed to be difficult for people with disabilities. Many homes, ice rinks, and other public places are created for able-bodied individuals while being inaccessible to many others. The social work program taught me that my time is best spent convincing other able-bodied people that our decisions are responsible for the obstacles facing the disabled community.

I left the Pitt School of Social Work ready to persuade large institutions that they should do more to avoid making systems that harm people with disabilities. This new focus took me to Silicon Valley where I worked as a consultant for groups like Honda, Mitsubishi, and various government agencies. While I had some limited success working with these organizations to change their policies related to disability, I knew relatively little about the digital technologies that these groups wanted me to research.

Where can I actually make the most difference? My experiences as a consultant helped me realize that I am not a “techie”. I am more a part of the hockey community than any other group.

The hockey community is where I can make the most difference.

A One Step Sharks player stands by the rink boards with a goalie after team practice.

Returning to Hockey

In the hockey world, people with disabilities are treated poorly.

Virtually every team I have been on has used slurs to refer to people with disabilities. If someone with a disability wants to play hockey, there are fewer opportunities compared to other sports like basketball or soccer.

Just being around other hockey players in non-hockey settings can be traumatic, like it was for Sydney Benes when her empty wheelchair was pushed down a flight of stairs by Mercyhurst hockey player, Carson Briere. These are only a few examples of the hockey community’s difficult relationship with disability.

Having left my consulting job with a renewed focus on hockey, I joined the San Jose Sharks organization as the Hockey Outreach and Inclusion Coordinator. This first-of-its-kind role put me in charge of making hockey more accessible for people with disabilities and others traditionally excluded from the sport.

Working for the Sharks, I coordinated in-house ice hockey and street hockey programs in Oakland, created learning sessions for coaches, developed interactive community hockey/art installations, and led the Special Sharks hockey team.

The Special Sharks are a competitive hockey team designed for players with a wide range of disabilities. My work for the Special Sharks team put me in charge of ice time, fundraising, and general development of disabled hockey in Oakland. My job was to convince able-bodied people to prioritize people with disabilities in the hockey community. This was not an easy task, but it gave me a unique opportunity to use my therapeutic skills, advocacy skills, and hockey skills together in service of people with disabilities.

Disabled hockey provided much more for the players than just a way to stay active. Teams like the Special Sharks give players an environment where they could master a skill that few can claim: playing ice hockey. More than one of the Special Sharks players went from being unable to stand on skates to out-skating rink staff within a few months.

Many players on the team will never be allowed to drive a car, live alone, or make daily decisions that others take for granted.

On the ice, Special Sharks players learned how to skate circles around other people. Not only did the players become better at hockey than the vast majority of able-bodied people, the players did so primarily by teaching each other.

The practices for Special Sharks were designed intentionally to be as unobtrusive as possible. Most players are under the age of 18 and rarely get time to learn on their own. The ice, boards, and glass of the rink provide the setting to be independent; most of the coaches’ job was to avoid intervening too often. Done right, the players walked away from the rink smiling ear to ear, eagerly awaiting the next game or practice.

Disabled hockey works when able-bodied people are willing to remove barriers that adversely affect the disabled community, even when those barriers are common in other spaces and especially when removing those barriers is considered cost-prohibitive.

One common barrier in disabled hockey is acquiring and maintaining equipment. Appropriate gear can be particularly hard to find for players that have physical impairments, sensory processing disorders, autism spectrum diagnoses, and/or many other conditions. The Special Sharks’ home rink had a policy that players could receive free rental gear, provided that they give their personal information to the rink and return the gear at the end of the season. One player who had never been a part of ice hockey and never worn hockey gear was concerned that they were going to have their new equipment taken away because of this policy.

I had the choice to reinforce this rule or convince staff to allow players to keep their gear. While there was initial resistance, because of the perceived limited amount of equipment available, the rink had too much gear to fit in the storage areas.

Eventually, the introduction process for players was changed to give each Special Sharks player free gear. The updated policy reduced the scale of barriers for players with disabilities, making it easier to start playing with a sense of ownership. Providing players with their own gear is one small change that helps welcome more people to the sport. Many other barriers must be addressed in order to make hockey more welcoming for the disabled community.

I left my role as Hockey Outreach and Inclusion Coordinator with a clearer sense of dedication toward supporting people with disabilities in hockey. I’m continuing this work with the One Step Sharks Hockey program in San Jose. Similar to the Special Sharks, One Step Sharks allows players with disabilities to practice and compete in tournaments. The One Step program caters to adults, while Special Sharks players are typically under 18 years old. Both programs provide invaluable opportunities for players with disabilities, but barriers remain.

Funding may be the easiest example yet many aspects of hockey culture still make participation difficult for players with disabilities, including rink inaccessibility, limited amounts of training for disabled hockey coaches, and negative stereotypes about the disabled community. Hockey can start to become a sport for everyone when these barriers no longer exist.

Each hockey community member plays a role in shaping the future of disabled hockey, whether in the form of donations, volunteering, advocacy, or changing how disability is talked about in the locker room. Many people are working towards a better version of hockey: one that constantly reassesses and improves policies affecting people with disabilities.

Hockey will continue limiting the disabled community until more meaningful changes are made to the structure and process of the sport.

Nearly seven years after the crash that broke my back, I often coach up to forty hours on the ice each week with various organizations, playing on recreational teams when there is extra time. I couldn’t fully comprehend my role in the hockey community when I was on youth teams or when I was in college, but now I can hardly imagine a life without coaching and disabled hockey. While aspiring young players may continue dreaming of future NHL careers as I had, these players are being done a disservice when they are taught that playing professional hockey is the singular goal.

Players should also be taught to use their understanding of the game to become better coaches, better supporters of disabled hockey, and better community members at large.

I worry about what would have happened if I never reassessed my relationship with disability and the disabled community. I worry about what will happen if we lose focus on the goals of disabled hockey; support for people with disabilities becoming an exclusively performative act. People with disabilities deserve a better hockey community.

It’s on us to make it happen.

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