By Dave Caldwell
NEWINGTON, Conn. — Back on her wheelchair and in the dressing room with her teammates, Sara Tabor said it had not been such a bad day on the ice. Her team, the Rangers, had lost twice, but she scored a goal after nearly bowling over a goaltender with her sled.
She laughed when she said opponents grumbled that she should have been called for a penalty, but she already knew that the referees rarely penalize the few women in the Northeast Sled Hockey League. Levels the playing field, you know.
“I play really aggressive hockey,” said Tabor, who lives on Long Island and works in Manhattan. “They’ll say: ‘She’s a girl! Why does she get to hold?’ The refs never call anything. You get in guys’ heads.”
Tabor, 31, is in her rookie season with a sled-hockey team sponsored, in part, by the N.H.L.’s Rangers, which explains why players wear red, white and blue sweaters.
Tabor was partly paralyzed when she fell in a shower in Germany four years ago. She grew up in Minnesota and is a Wild fan (and a North Stars fan before that), but had never played organized hockey until she was injured.
She is unable to walk without the aid of leg braces or crutches, and she needs to use a wheelchair to get from Penn Station to work, often slaloming through pedestrians. Hockey has rejuvenated her.
“I count my blessings a lot,” she said. Of her injury, she said: “It’s not something I dwell on. I just have to get stuff done.”
Though able-bodied people play sled hockey, the sport was designed for athletes with mobility limitations caused by injuries or conditions like cerebral palsy. It is a part of the Paralympic Games.
The Rangers are one of six teams in the Northeast Sled Hockey League, the first of its kind, which holds five games one Sunday per month at the Newington Arena, near Hartford. Each team plays eight regular-season games and there are also playoff games. The annual entry fee is $3,000 per team. Many teams pad their schedules by playing in tournaments.
Players strap themselves into seated $800 sleds with two skates mounted on the bottom, one at the front, one under the seat. They propel themselves with two half-hockey sticks in a fashion similar to cross-country skiers. Composite sticks cost $120 per pair and have small spikes bolted to the butt ends. (Tabor tapes hers pink.)
The stick blades are less curved than those on standard ice-hockey sticks, and the elbows of the sticks are straighter than those on ice-hockey sticks, in part because the players are lower to the ice. A 45-minute game is played on a standard rink.
“We’re not just some disabled people playing out there who are looking for a pat on the back,” said Victor Calise, a founder and team manager of the sled-hockey Rangers.
Calise, also No. 9 (think Adam Graves) on the ice, began playing sled hockey not long after he was paralyzed in a bicycle accident in Queens in 1994 — “the year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup,” he said, smiling. Calise, 40, is a commissioner in New York City for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and two daughters.
Icing and offsides are called, and players on sleds often clash — and crash — while jousting for loose pucks in corners. Penalties are rare, but they are called by two able-bodied officials. There is only one concession at Newington: Players who are not in the game sit inside the boards, nudging live pucks back into play.
The pace of sled hockey, of course, is much slower than, say, even the youth games played at Newington Arena, but the action can be ferocious. Wrist shots are hard, and players occasionally separate shoulders and snap collarbones when they slam into the boards.
“It’s full contact,” said Taylor Chace, 26, a player for the United States Paralympic team who sustained a severe back injury while playing junior hockey in New Hampshire 10 years ago. “There’s just as much as able-bodied hockey.”
As a volunteer for the Wheelchair Sports Federation, Calise serves as a liaison between the organization and the Rangers, who provide the sled-hockey team with jerseys, the use of their logo, ice time for practice twice a month at their training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., and, occasionally, a grant. There is also an affiliated youth program.
Calise, who grew up in Queens playing street hockey, said the Rangers’ affiliation with the sled-hockey team generates positive publicity for both teams. But he added that in a city with 800,000 disabled residents, it should be easier to find players than it has been. The Rangers have about 20 players on their roster, including three women.
Asked to describe just how much of a workout a game is, Calise smiled and said: “Depends on how hard you push on your shift. You can’t just push yourself out there and play.”
On a recent Sunday, the Rangers played back-to-back games against two of the best teams in the N.S.H.L.: the NEP Wildcats, a Durham, N.H.-based team for which Chace plays, and the Flyers, whose players are from the Philadelphia area.
Each team can have up to three able-bodied players, but no more than two of them can be on the ice at one time, said Ken Messier, the president of the league and one of its founders in 2005. The team known as the Rangers joined in 2007.
“If you have a good goalie, he can make up for a lot — just like regular hockey,” said Messier, who helps run the Connecticut Wolf Pack, another N.S.H.L. team.
Then there are players like Tabor. She is a sled-hockey devotee who has gone from a newbie to a player who is considering trying out for the United States women’s sled-hockey team.
She has made friends here quickly, and her boyfriend, Larry Minei, also plays for the Rangers. She said she is beyond the point of thinking that she merely caught a hockey bug.
“We don’t really think of ourselves as inspirational stories,” said Tabor, who added: “We work out, we eat everything that regular hockey players do. It’s just that we play with our legs strapped down.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 29, 2012
An article on Thursday about participants in the Northeast Sled Hockey League referred incorrectly to the plans of one of the players, Sara Tabor. She is considering trying out for the United States women’s sled-hockey team — not the sled-hockey team that will compete at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (Only the men’s sled-hockey team competes in those Games.)