Niagara sledge hockey league looks to break down barriers to entry and create a welcoming community for all

A new recreational sledge hockey league is looking to give ice time to everyone, with or without a disability.

ParaSport’s Niagara Sledge Hockey League (NSHL) launched its second season in October, with games across Niagara.

Sledge hockey is a form of hockey played on special sledges, with players using two shorter sticks to manoeuvre themselves around the ice and manipulate the puck.

League co-ordinator Kevin Waters said that although there is a competitive sledge hockey team in Niagara, there was a gap when it came to recreational leagues, which NSHL fills.

NSHL prides itself on creating a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. It’s open to everybody: Priority is given to players with disabilities, but able-bodied players are also welcome.

“We want to make sure that everyone can get out and play,” said Waters.

And for Chase Myers and Kaleb Brown, they feel they’ve found a sense of community in the league.

Brown, from Beamsville, has been trying to find a supportive, welcoming recreational sport league for a long time. He has autism, and he said he has troubles with social skills. He also has an issue with his legs.

He tried to join various recreational leagues, but they always lacked the sense of community he craved.

One league was so unwelcoming that players would call him slurs because of his autism.

“Because of my autism they were not welcoming at all,” he said.

But at NSHL, that’s completely the opposite, with players and organizers taking the time to talk to him and ensure he was included.

“I was blown away,” he said. “(It was a) night and day difference.”

It’s benefitted his life away from hockey, improving his social skills and making him more confident and talkative.

Myers, 10, from St Catharines was also on the ice at Ridley College on Nov. 5. He used to play stand-up hockey before a hip condition forced him to stop.

In September 2021, Myers was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a condition that causes a loss of blood flow to the hip, deteriorating the bone. He was told to avoid physical exercise, causing him to miss out on hockey tryouts.

“I was really sad,” he said. “Hockey was my favourite thing to play.”

However, by a stroke of luck, NSHL was founded just a few weeks later, giving Myers the opportunity to continue playing hockey without putting pressure on his hip.

Not only does he enjoy playing sledge hockey, but it, too, gives him a sense of community that comes from playing on a team.

“Chase was really missing that sense of team,” said his mother, Ashleigh Myers.

And here, he’s found it in spades, despite the fact he’s the youngest on the team by a long stretch.

“Everyone is so inclusive and welcoming,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m playing stand-up hockey with my friends.”

NSHL is part of ParaSport Ontario, a non-profit which helps support members of the disability community in finding their sport. The sledge hockey league gets funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a government agency which invests in community-based initiatives throughout the province.

Through the funding, NSHL was able to get the equipment, including sledges, sticks, helmets, gloves and jerseys.

According to Waters, that equipment could cost around $1,200: a sizable financial barrier to entry. But thanks to the funding, it’s easier for everyone to get involved in the sport.

The league also got a helping hand from the municipalities in Grimsby, St Catharines and Niagara Falls. In Grimsby, the league plays in the Peach King Centre, and Waters paid tribute to the supportive nature of the staff.

“They’re committed to the players,” he said.

Anyone who wants to play sledge hockey can contact Kevin Waters at events@parasportontario.ca, or visit parasportniagara.ca.

And Chase Myers would certainly recommend it.

“It’s a great opportunity if you like hockey. It’s a great opportunity to get into it and do something fun,” he said.

Chris Pickles, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News