In 1999, 15-year-old Homestead High School hockey player Noel Klein fell off the back of a pickup, suffering severe head trauma and neurological damage. He was in a coma for four months. Through the support of family and friends, he became stronger and regained basic mobility but is blind in his left eye.
Because he was unable to play high school hockey again, Klein's mother Kim approached his physical therapist and youth hockey coach Ted Scholten with a video about sled hockey.
Sled hockey uses most rules of regular hockey games with checking, passing and line changes, except players line up along the boards and do not climb onto the bench. It was invented in the early 1960s in Stockholm and is a popular sport in the Paralympic Games. Players ride sleds, using pegs on the butt ends of their sticks to pull themselves along on a full sheet of ice. The best shooters can blast the puck nearly 30 mph.
One of the coolest things about sled hockey is it's designed for both those with and without physical disabilities. Maybe one family member is confined to a wheelchair, but sled hockey is something other siblings can also play with them.
Kim Klein wondered whether it was possible to get something like sled hockey started in Fort Wayne. Scholten approached Chuck Reddinger at McMillen Park Ice Arena, but as hard as he tried, Reddinger couldn't figure out how the program could work without a huge financial commitment. At that time sleds cost between $500 and $600.
Then Fort Wayne got an unbelievable blessing in 2007 when Randy Kwapis moved here from Grand Rapids, Mich., where his son Matt, who had been born with spina bifida, had played sled hockey. Randy Kwapis started Mobility Sports here, which is the only manufacturer of sleds in the country, and he's been going out of his way to help Fort Wayne players ever since. He's like the dad who's always in the garage tinkering with go-karts to help his kid become a champion racer, but his passion is hockey sleds.
With Kwapis' aid, the Bob Chase Frostbite Sled Hockey Tournament started in 2008, with Klein, Matt Kwapis and his sister Kayla playing on the Turnstone Flyers team. Reddinger is the tournament director and he's always creating more work for himself because of big dreams.
The Flyers are now one of the nation's top teams. The tournament continues to get bigger and in 2010 was sanctioned by International Silver Stick Hockey Association as the world's first international sled hockey event.
There are so many potential plans for the tournament (such as a goalie clinic) that events such as the annual Sled Hockey Challenge are held to help fund it. A full day of activities starts at 2 p.m. and admission is free, but a donation of $20 will be replaced with a pair of Komets script tickets and five raffle tickets. The raffle prizes include things such as a chance to shoot a puck for a new car, a year of Pepsi and night at a Komets game in the Pepsi Suite for 27 people.
Part of the fun will be the Flyers taking on some Komets Legends. The current list of possible former Komets includes Guy Dupuis, Steve Fletcher, Doug Teskey, Kevin Bertram, Kelly Hurd, Jim Logan, Dale Baldwin, John Hilworth, Derek Ray, Eddie Long, Ron Leef, Robbie Irons and George Drysdale. The more-experienced (read: more intelligent) former Komets say they are not participating in the sled hockey challenge.
Which means the younger guys will have to be drafted. It's only a slight coincidence that a beer tasting will be held at 4 p.m., an hour before game starts.
It won't matter because the kids are going to cream them. They all have shoulders Fletcher would have been envious of in his prime, and they can make those sleds fly.
That's OK, though, because there will be lots of smiles and laughs and everyone will have fun. It's amazing how one person's horrible injury started something that Fort Wayne can now be so proud of.