Minutes before the ice opens, players quickly wiggle helmets onto heads, tighten laces and grab a stick. With only an hour of ice time, these hockey players do not dally.
Most play in a sled, a bucket seat attached to a protruding metal track, all of which balances upon a system that glides on the ice. In the four years since Teton Adaptive Sports launched its sled hockey skating program, 30 sleds have come up for grabs during the 10 seasonal sessions.
Sled hockey, sometimes called sledge hockey, is open to all aficionados, whether they need a sled to play or want to try out a new style. Traditional hockey players are welcome, as are the Jackson Hole Moose Hockey players, who act as ice chaperones.
Some sleds are already claimed. Liz, Maleah, Tracie — players who skated last year — have their names taped to the backs of the buckets. It’s a sport players tend to look forward to for weeks before the season starts in November, whether they’re shooting for the back of the net from a sled or skates.
“All week long it was like, ‘When does sled hockey start?’” said Carolyn Burke, whose son, Brendan, is a regular.
“You know they like it when they want to come,” said Anna Olson, whose 17-year-old son, Marcus, is also a regular skater, “unlike other activities teenage boys don’t want to do with their moms.”
The skate and sled hockey program started in 2015. It was largely the brainchild of a Teton Adaptive Sports board President Liz Acosta-McCune, whose daughter wanted to “be on the ice like her big brother,” Executive Director Christy Fox said.
Acosta-McCune, along with former Teton Adaptive Sports Executive Director Kurt Henry and Jackson Hole Moose Hockey Coach Bob Carruth, pooled their ideas and resources. The nonprofit landed a grant to purchase the first five sleds from Mobility Sports, a company that creates speciality wheelchairs and sports equipment for the adaptive community.
The program has since grown six-fold.
‘Don’t want to be special’
On a Sunday in November, Moose Hockey players skate onto freshly Zamboni’d ice to set up four nets at either end of the rink. When the clock hits 2:15 p.m. the Moose take their places pushing players around, overseeing games and often taking a few shots themselves. Staff and volunteers for Teton Adaptive Sports also take a post, moving skaters in and out of sleds, in and out of the rink.
Who represents the Moose “depends on how the game went” the night before, “who’s banged up,” Carruth said. But the players — celebrities to the kids, Fox said — have made the program a steady part of their Sunday plans.
As for who’s on the ice, it’s kids to adults, able and disabled. The free programming is intentionally open to everyone, Fox said.
“For us separate isn’t equal,” Fox said. “When the kids from adaptive groups or special ed get separated and sent to do their sport without their friends from school and their contemporaries, it becomes separate.”
Teton Adaptive Sports, a nonprofit started in 2005, helps create a path for those with disabilities to play outdoors. With bike and ski camps, ice hockey and rock climbing events and individual athlete support, the program has grown to include a year-round lineup of adventures — largely for kids and teens, but also for adults. Like ice hockey, most of the events blend ages and ability levels.
“A lot of times people think when we’re starting a separate activity, we’re starting something special,” she said. “But these kids don’t want to be special — they want to be like everybody else.”
While sports are used as a vehicle for learning, the activity is secondary to teaching life skills, Fox said. When someone topples over in a sled, for example, the Moose wait to offer a gloved hand.
“They’ll come to assist, but a lot of times they’ll talk to them and teach them how to get up,” said Kay Farmer, former residential coordinator for Community Entry Services, a nonprofit that teaches independence to those with disabilities.
Though she’s no longer full time at Community Entry Services, Farmer has kept strong ties with the nonprofit and its clients, including Gary Endecott.
At a November sled hockey practice, she kept her eye on Endecott, pressing her finger against the glass when he slid to a stop inside the rink and tapped his glove on the Plexiglas to get her attention.
“His season is winter,” Farmer said.
In addition to playing sled hockey, Endecott attended the Special Olympics World Games in Austria, competing in the giant slalom and super-G alpine events. When not on the slopes or on the ice, he’s often rinkside, working as an equipment trainer for the Jackson Hole Moose Hockey team, a position he shares with Sean Stone.
Community Entry Services supported Endecott as he built his independent life, which includes his own apartment and a steady job. Teton Adaptive Sports programming complements such work.
“We’re teaching people how to ice skate, and we’re teaching people how to ski, but those are really where you learn to have a life outside your parents — to be outside with your friends and problem solve and fall down and get back up,” Fox said. “Skiing and hockey are the tools we use to learn those skills but it’s not the end result.
“I don’t want to send a bunch of kids to the NHL,” she said. “I want to send a bunch of kids out in the world so they can interact with the public and get jobs and ride buses and make friends and work on interpersonal relationships and find joy in athletics. Those things are more important.”
‘Their whole world just changed’
Matt Kwapis has seen hockey transform lives. His own included.
The 28-year-old was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the formation of the spinal column, and started using a wheelchair at age 7.
When he was a teenager his father, Randy, developed the Typhoon, a sports wheelchair capable of handling rocky terrain. Randy Kwapis launched the Indiana-based Mobility Sports in 2002. The company also manufactures the adaptive bucket sleds used for sled hockey. Soon after, Matt Kwapis found himself on the ice.
He has played hockey for years, only recently taking time off from the Turnstone Flyers, an adult sled hockey team in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to tie the knot and take on more at Mobility Sports. (After consulting with his dad, the CEO, during an interview for his story, he said his title with the company is “do whatever the CEO says.” Or, more formally, sales and marketing.)
In his early years he played on a mix of teams, some with older guys, some with kids his age. But regardless of how someone gets in the sled, picking up a stick always seems to have a positive impact.
“You talk to mom and dad and before the kid started playing hockey they just sat around and didn’t do anything — and then they started playing sled hockey and their whole world just changed,” he said. “You meet these veterans who have been injured overseas and they came back and this has really given them a new outlook on life.”
Being specially designed and almost entirely adjustable, the gear isn’t cheap — sleds run between $500 and $1,000 apiece. Teton Adaptive Sports used grant money from USA Hockey to cover equipment costs and ice time, the Snow King Sports and Events Center allows the nonprofit to store its stuff inside the rink through the skating season, and Teton Adaptive Sports staff, volunteers and Moose Hockey players run the Sunday afternoon events.
“It’s just such a great community effort,” Farmer said.
The most small-town, “typical Jackson” part of the game may be the after-party. Those who play are invited into the Moose locker room to chow down on chili dogs or pizza. Local restaurants often pony up the feast, which continues to grow as the program gains popularity.
There’s no better sign of success than that, Carruth said.
“I want to make more chili, more hot dogs, more Gatorades available after these hockey games,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 100 people.”