Cape Breton sledge hockey program scores big with kids with disabilities

When Steve and Gina Deveaux set up Cape Breton's first sledge hockey team, the Cape Breton Sledgehammers, they had one goal in mind: to give their son, Kurtis, the chance to play hockey.

That was almost a decade ago. Now they have a new goal: to offer that same opportunity to younger kids. 

The Deveauxs launched a free minor sledge hockey program this fall. Glace Bay Minor Hockey covers the cost for ice time and Easter Seals, Medavie Blue and Southport Wealth Management donated the sledges.

The team is for young people with a disability and also for able-bodied children. So far, there are 14 players, ages five to 18.

Steve Deveaux said it was important to him and his family to give kids a chance to play sledge hockey. 

"To be able to see a child at five years of age get in a sledge and just to watch them go and be free and skate around to see the things that they didn't realize they can do ... it's fun," said Deveaux. "We're developing excellent little young hockey players, but I know that they're getting a whole lot more out of it than just being a hockey player."

Nicole MacLennan/CBC

Natasha Sinclair's children, Brady, six, and Briella, seven, joined the team so they could do something together. Brady, who has a disability, used to watch from the sidelines while Briella played sports. 

"I hope for Brady that he realizes that he has opportunities just like everybody else and he's not as different as sometimes he feels," said Sinclair.

"For them to be able to be out on the ice together, it's pretty cool and it's something they can talk about at home and communicate with their friends together. It's a proud moment to see them play together like that."

Level playing field

Creating a level playing field for all the kids was important to the Deveauxs, especially Kurtis.

His disability kept him from playing stand-up hockey, but once he got in a sledge, he said it was a dream come true. If he had the opportunity to play at a younger age, Deveaux said it would have made a world of difference. 

"I look at where I would have been if I had started at age five instead of at age 21; it would have been amazing. I mean this crew here that I play with, they're my closest friends right now," said Deveaux. "If I had had something like this to get me through those socially awkward, shy years, it would have been amazing."

Nicole MacLennan/CBC

That's one of the benefits of sledge hockey for 16-year-old Hope MacInnis.

Her mother Tammy said becoming a member of the minor sledge hockey team has been a game changer for her daughter.

"She never had the opportunity to be on the same playing field as everybody else. They're equal on the ice in a sledge and she's part of a team. She's never had that before," said MacInnis. "She has something to look forward to on the weekends, she's happier. I see her smile a lot when she's on the ice and that's nice to see."

Builds confidence

It makes Gina Deveaux smile, too. She said it makes all the volunteer hours she, Steve and Kurtis put into the team more than worth it.  

"If parents could just get their kids out to try it, it does so much for the child's confidence," said Deveaux.

"Sledge hockey gives any kid with any ability the chance to be part of that team. That is just so, so, important. It just does my heart good. It's the best thing that we ever did. It can be such a big sport."