About once a week a picture of a child's beaming smile or a thank you note written in large printed letters will arrive in Randy Kwapis's Pine Valley mail box, evidence that someone else has found new freedom to play.
"Nothing makes me feel better," Kwapis said. "It can keep you motivated pretty easily when you hear those kind of stories. This is the coolest job there is."
But Kwapis kind of came upon his coolest job by accident. After his son Matt — who was born with spina bifida — fell in love with sled hockey, Kwapis noticed there was a need and started building hockey sleds in 2005 when the family was living near Detroit. He built 12 sleds his first year and another 25 the second, and when his wife Janice transferred jobs in 2007, the Kwapis and their family business Mobility Sports LLC moved to Fort Wayne.
Kwapis increased production to make about 180 sleds annually a few years ago and more than 400 last year. When he started, the first one took about two weeks to build, but now he can complete one in two hours and figures he's produced thousands of total sleds. But it's hard to estimate how much hope his sleds have given to youngsters who may have been been unable to experience the joy of competing before.
Sled hockey is usually played by those with physical challenges and uses most rules of regular hockey games with checking, passing and line changes. 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.
Working out of his garage as the country's only sleds manufacturer, Kwapis has been going out of his way to help Fort Wayne players ever since, and Turnstone's sled hockey teams won a pair of national championships the past four years. 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.
"They have had a huge impact on sled hockey in this area," said Turnstone Sports and Recreation Coordinator Kevin Hughes. "It really wasn't moving this way in a significant way until they moved here. He's always working with us and giving us a pretty big advantage to have the only sled hockey company in this country in your back yard."
But helping others has a tremendous impact on Kwapis, 54, and Matt, 27, who handles the paperwork side of the business. They understand intimately the challenges families and new players face.
"When I tell them my backstory that I play and I'm also in a wheelchair, I think that helps," Matt said. "I've talked to some parents before who have young kids who are just starting out and they are worried about them, and rightfully so. I tell them you have to let them be kids and be independent or they are not going to want to do anything and they're just going to be sitting around all the time."
One of the coolest things about sled hockey is it's designed for participants both 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, which is what happened with Matt and his younger sister Kayla. They had the chance to became actual teammates.
"I liked it because it gave us something we could do together," Kayla said. "We could travel together, but we still had that sibling rivalry that we pushed each other to get better."
While Matt continues to play with Turnstone, Kayla is studying nursing at Ball State, but there's always somebody new calling to ask about acquiring a sled. Every week somebody with physical challenges wants a chance to experience the thrill of competing, maybe for the first time.
"I don't know what's next, but we'll keep going as long as we can and there's a need for it," Randy Kwapis said. "It's worked out pretty good."
For more on local sports, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.