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Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation's sled hockey team overcomes disabilities on the ice

TAMPA

In the chilly, dank corridor where they park the Zambonis, Mark Lalli smelled hockey.

Hockey has its own smell, every player knows that. It's different from baseball smell or basketball smell. It's a deliciously pungent mixture of sweat and melted ice, a dash of wet wool socks, a sprinkle of cold mildew.

The last time Mark Lalli, 24, smelled hockey was five years ago. He had played hockey near Cleveland since he was 7. His dad, Richard, was a coach. His dad made him take figure skating lessons for a year so he would skate right. Lalli got good. "His skates were an extension of his feet," said his mother, Ann. Lalli also discovered he had a hockey player's attitude.

"I guess you'd call it block-headed. It's taking the hits and shrugging it off."

Then he graduated from high school and joined the Army. When he left, he stored his gloves, pads and sticks — everything reeking of hockey — in a canvas bag in the basement.

He spent 2005 in Iraq as a crew chief aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, ferrying soldiers into combat. He finished without a scratch. After that, he won a plum assignment near Venice, Italy, ferrying heads of state around Europe.

The helicopter crashed during a training run two years ago. Six of 11 on board died. Lalli survived, but suffered a brain injury, two collapsed lungs and multiple fractures, including eight crushed vertebrae. He lay in a coma for a month. Some doctors predicted he'd remain semivegetative. If he ever sat up again, that would be a miracle.

He was transferred to the miracle factory: the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.

In late March, Lalli rolled himself through the icy corridor at the St. Pete Times Forum in a wheelchair. He had heard about a sled hockey team practicing on Wednesdays and Sundays. He found the hall filled with other wheelchairs — all belonging to members of a team created for players who can't stand on skates.

He sucked in the smell of hockey.

For the first time since the accident, he didn't feel handicapped.

The coach looks like he could use a sled. Mike Celona coaches two other hockey teams during the day and plays in an adult league at night. He had stopped playing in 1991 after a back injury, but got on the ice again when his son, Anthony, started playing. When Celona hobbles into practice on creaky knees, he looks barely able to walk. Then he straps on his skates and glides.

Celona never saw sled hockey until he was asked to coach it a year ago. The team was 4 years old and between coaches. It was started by the Lightning Foundation. The executive director was told about the sport by a college student/gym rat with cerebral palsy named Travis Leigh. Much to Leigh's surprise, the foundation went for it all the way — donating ice time, gear, a coach and a large portion of travel expenses.

Celona read up on sled hockey and watched videos. The players ride on sleds made of aluminum tubing. They push themselves with two shortened hockey sticks. They shoot with both hands. They must abide by one big rule: no "T-boning," no broadsiding an opponent. Also, because they can't skate backward, they rely on different defensive strategies.

Other than that, it's rough and tumble hockey: checking, slamming, fighting for the puck, crashing the boards.

The team he took over included boys, girls, men, women; the youngest is a redheaded 12-year-old, the oldest a 54-year-old gray-beard. They represented just about every disability, from cerebral palsy to amputations to spina bifida to spinal cord and brain injuries. The majority were young amputees with massive upper body strength.

Celona decided: No allowances for disabilities. They would run the drills and scrimmage hard. No gold-bricking, no fooling around. They would take their hits. They would play the game.

• • •

The redheaded 12-year-old found sled hockey three years ago after searching for a sport to play. Declan Farmer, a sixth-grader at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, was born with deformed hips and legs. He learned to walk at age 1 on prosthetic legs.

In second grade, Declan learned to skate on his prosthetic legs. He has also tried golf and soccer, even snowboarding. But nothing clicked for him the way sled hockey did.

"It was the speed."

When players dig in their sticks, they just about fly across the ice, and when their sleds turn, they leave a shower of ice crystals.

Declan gravitated to the team's oldest player, Ron Richardson, 54. In 1993, Richardson's leg was crushed by a forklift. He discovered sled hockey about seven years ago, after 10 years of wheelchair basketball. He plays both sports now. He's twice as wide as Declan, but the two have become an offensive pair — charging down the ice in tandem, the puck flying between them.

Richardson told Declan that amputees hold an advantage in sled hockey. It's the power-to-weight ratio of their upper bodies. "Amputees rule," he said. "You're not carrying any extra baggage."

What Declan began to see was that he could be competitive — not just against kids, but against anyone. "He really loves the sense of doing something at a high level," said his father, Matt, "even mixing it up with adults."

Declan added speed and tightened his turns by moving the two blades under his sled together, making a single blade. He worked on his shooting by firing pucks at a wrought-iron table in the driveway. He practiced shooting left-handed. He rode a hand cycle to strengthen his upper body.

"He's all power," Richardson said.

• • •

After his first practice, Lalli, the injured Army veteran, called his dad in Cleveland. He asked him to retrieve his bag of hockey gear from the basement and FedEx it to Tampa for the next practice — the final one of the season.

As he glided onto the rink in vintage gloves and pads, Lalli's sled upended, flipping his feet up in the air, pushing his head down on the ice.

Lalli waited for someone to come by and flip him back. Nearby, Declan raced for the puck, leaning his sled into a hard turn. Lalli watched him. The kid wasn't sledding, he was skating. Declan reminded Lalli of how he used to skate at that age.

Lalli lay flat on the ice. He was still waiting to get turned upright. Then he would try again. Every time he has struggled to learn a skill that was supposed to be impossible, he has said, "Watch me."

He was smiling as he lay flipped upside down — a goofy, ecstatic smile.

Ah, that hockey smell.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.

Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation's sled hockey team overcomes disabilities on the ice 04/09/10 [Last modified: Sunday, April 11, 2010 1:51pm]

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