Athletics was a major part of Nathan Carey's childhood. That all changed when the 2006 Dimond High grad broke his back six years ago.
After all, contact sports and wheelchairs don't mix -- or so Carey thought. Then he found sled hockey.
Carey, who just finished his first full season with the Alaska Avalanche sled hockey team, said the sport gives people like him the opportunity to engage in physical competition despite their injuries.
"This is the first thing I found since breaking my back that is full contact," Carey said following a game Tuesday at the Subway Sports Centre.
The Alaska Avalanche played four games against a visiting Buffalo squad, marking their first home games against a real opponent since the team started a decade ago. A typical "season" for the Avalanche includes weekly intrasquad scrimmages at Palmer Ice Arena.
Sled hockey isn't much different from "stand up" hockey, the term sled hockey players use to describe the more well known version of the sport. The biggest difference is how players maneuver on the ice.
Players sit in a sled, which has two skate blades on the bottom and a runner in the front to form a tripod. In each hand they hold a stick, which has a blade at one end and a pick, like the kind found on the toe of a figure skate, on the other.
A majority of the rules are the same as traditional hockey, and checking is permitted.
That's Carey's favorite part of sled hockey. The sport also provides the type of camaraderie only shared between teammates -- something that's been hard to find since his injury, Carey said.
"This is your first team feeling again," he said.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
There's another aspect to the sport that appeals to Carey -- the equality among all players that sitting in a sled creates.
"It takes you out of your disability," he said. "Everybody is on the same playing field."
That goes for all players on the Avalanche, a roster that includes skaters with physical disabilities and traumatic brain injuries as well as some who are able-bodied. The Avalanche have plenty of the latter.
Chris Milbrett is one such skater. He started playing in 2003, when the Challenge Alaska team was called the Alaska Icers.
Sled hockey is a sport he can play with his father, Gerry. While working for Klondike Concrete, a 1,000-pound tank fell on Gerry Milbrett. It was the same day his other son, Jesse, now 22, was born. Today, the three Milbretts and two cousins account for five of the 13 Avalanche players.
"I just love it," Chris said. "It's with my dad."
Gerry, the team captain, said hockey helps release frustration. It's also a rare opportunity when he's not treated as a delicate person in a wheelchair.
"We bang," he said. "Tempers flare just like regular hockey."
Following his injury, Gerry received some good advice: stay active. He encourages others in a similar situation to do the same.
"Your life can change like that," Gerry said, snapping his fingers.
But a disability doesn't mean an end to sports, he said. In fact, Gerry didn't become a hockey fan until after his injury. Now, he's hooked.
"It's a way of life," he said.
Sled hockey introduced Gerry to a new sport, but for Israel Hale, it helped him continue to skate after he lost both legs two years ago when a car smashed into him while he was inspecting a trailer behind his truck on Dimond Boulevard.
"Losing your legs, there's so much you can't do," Hale said. "To play hockey like I used to is just really great."
trip to Buffalo
The path to the Avalanche's games this week started with a 2009 trip to Buffalo, New York, for the Disabled Hockey Festival.
There, Alaska coach Jeff Dick met Norm Page, USA Hockey's sled hockey representative and the father of Adam Page, a member of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic hockey team.
Page helped raise funds to bring the Buffalo Sabres Sled Vets, comprised of 16 military veterans and a majority of players 50 and older, to Anchorage for two games Monday and two on Tuesday.
This is only the third time the Avalanche have played real games. The team traveled to Outside tournaments twice, most recently to Buffalo five years ago, and until this week it had never played a real game on home ice.
"It's history for us," Gerry Milbrett said.
Just like hockey
Prior to the fourth and final game of the series, Dick discussed strategy with the Avalanche. He told his team to expect a different game plan from Buffalo. He told them he wanted every player to register a shot on goal.
The pregame message delivered by Dick could have been given to stand-up players lacing up their skates as easily as the team it was meant for in a locker room crowded with players, spouses, service dogs and wheelchairs.
"Hockey is hockey in a sled, too," Milbrett said.
Tuesday's outcome was the same as all four games, a victory for the home team.
Reach Mike Nesper at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By MIKE NESPER