San Diego Ducks sled hockey program liberates

Hockey really is for everyone.

Case in point: 5-year old Andrew Kane put on pads for the first time last weekend at The Rinks Poway ICE to participate in a clinic run by the San Diego Ducks sled hockey program.

Guided onto the ice by Ducks sled hockey program founder and current manager/adult team captain Sarah Bettencourt, Kane got his first taste of hockey action.

And did so with a big smile on his face.

“He’s always gung ho about everything but was 100 percent fired up for this,” said Kane’s mother, Amanda. “He’s been excited since we heard about this and it’s just great to see him get out here to learn something new while seeing people who are like him. It’s just great.”

Kane has spina bifida, a birth defect in which an area of ​​the spinal column does not form properly and often impacts a person’s ability to walk and run.

If Kane needed a role model for dealing with his specific condition, all he had to do was look over to the next section of ice at the player in jersey No. 9: 16-year-old Ducks youth team member James Williams.

Williams also has spina bifida and after participating in sports like swimming and basketball, first tried sled hockey at the age of 8.

He pretty much fell in love with it on day one, according to his mother Eunice, who was also on hand for last week’s clinic.

James Williams of Encanto, who has spina bifida, was one of the participants in the Try Sled Hockey clinic.

(Howard Lipin/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“This has given him so much,” Eunice Williams said. “Friends. Camaraderie. It’s really like a family. It’s also given him bragging rights. Someone made a comment once and he pulled out his phone and showed a video of himself playing. And it was: ‘Ah, man, you play hockey? That’s cool?’ So, it’s just been so valuable for him. He loves it.”

Bettencourt is a former US Marine Corps captain who founded the Ducks’ sled hockey program in 2014, two years after being forced to retire from the service after suffering permanent neurological damage to her legs during helicopter training.

A member of the US Women’s Sled Hockey and Para-Surf teams, Bettencourt sees sports as a crucial way for people dealing with a disability to better navigate the world around them.

The Anaheim Ducks, and by extension, their American Hockey League affiliate in San Diego, the Gulls, also support programs such as blind hockey and deaf hockey.

Grassroots programs begin for children as young as 3 years old and include programs for people of all ages.

The main idea Bettencourt and other sled hockey veterans want to get across: hockey is just a whole ton of fun.

“The first time a player gets on the ice it is completely liberating,” Bettencourt said. “At first it can be a little confusing. What is going on? There are people watching. But then, next thing they know, they are flying down the ice. They feel free. They feel independent. They feel like they can do anything in the world because they are not restricted. They can compete in a sport that is equivalent to their peers. Then, the next thing you know they are shooting the puck, stick action, scoring. You see a light bulb go off. And then when they get off the ice, the first thing they say is: when can I do this again?”

The Ducks’ sled hockey adult and youth teams will conduct a training camp starting Aug. 13 with a competition schedule to be released at some point in September.

The youth team includes players aged 5-17, is non-checking and involves both local recreational league and travel competition. The adult team plays full checking and also competes locally as well as nationally.

Both teams primarily practice and hold clinics at Poway ICE (for information go to

Ducks adult team member and unofficial “locker room morale booster” Brandon Dodson got into sled hockey in 2017. He lost both legs after stepping on an IED while on duty with the Marines in Afghanistan in 2014 and now gets around on prosthetic legs.

If they are in any way limiting, one would hardly know it by the way Dodson moved around the rink before the recent clinic, chatting the first-timers up, encouraging, cajoling and just generally being a high-energy influence on everyone around him.

“For us military guys, it’s therapy,” Dodson said. “To get out there and be physical and compete, sweating and shouting and getting after it… our role with the younger players and people new, is to get them involved. Have fun. Get after it. They have to catch up to us. There’s no time to stop and think about what’s going on or about any disability. It’s bark hour. So, yeah, it’s on and off ice therapy for sure.”

Dodson and teammates like Lera Doederlein try to send the same message to anyone interested in trying the sport: you are welcome.

“Just know there’s inclusivity and opportunity for all, no matter what,” Doederlein said. “Hockey is something that everyone can have fun with and enjoy.”

Meanwhile, as Andrew Kane just gets started on his hockey journey, a player like James Williams is looking to take the next step.

He’s currently weighing college opportunities with a focus on schools that have sled hockey programs.

Said Eunice Williams: “The sport has opened so many doors for him. It really has been special.”

The Kanes are preparing for a move to the Dallas area but have already found a sled hockey program for Andrew.

“We already see that this can be a life-changing thing for him,” Amanda Kane said. “In this able-bodied world, here is a place where he can really belong.”

Carter is a freelance writer.

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