SABATO: My journey through sled hockey brought normalcy

The author, Nick Sabato, competes in the 2006 USA Sled Hockey Development Camp in Rochester, New York. (Courtesy photo)

Anyone that has been in a locker room can paint the same picture, no matter the sport.

Wet towels, horse play and crude jokes.

All of those were in locker rooms during my athletic career. But there were also wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetic legs. Initially I wanted no part of that scene and I wanted no part of sled hockey.

I have loved sports since my older brothers put Buffalo Bills stickers on my incubator in the hospital after I was born. My father was a high school football coach and I grew up going to practices and worshipping my brothers and their athletic endeavors, but for the first 10 years of my life, I was mostly a spectator.

With a spinal cord injury -- C7 to T4, for those curious -- I couldn’t play the sports I loved. Football, basketball and hockey were off the table. I played challenger baseball as an adolescent, but that was a sport built for those with physical and cognitive disabilities.


So, eventually the idea that everyone gets to hit, everyone is safe and everyone scores a run did not mesh with my competitive personality. I also tried wrestling, but youth coaches did not understand how to work with someone that could not use their hips. I never blamed them, but I slowly lost interest in competing in the sport.

On several occasions when I was about 10, my mother casually brought up the idea of trying sled hockey. It’s a sport played by sitting on a sled, propped up by two blades on the bottom and propelled by sticks in each hand with mini ice picks at the bottom, she explained.

I rebuffed her each time, thinking it was going to result in a similar experience to challenger baseball. After all, I wanted to play “normal” sports like all of my friends and I didn’t think anything else could insatiate that thirst. When I was 11, I didn’t have a choice -- I was going.

I remember sitting on the sled on the edge of the ice and turning to my parents to say, “I don’t think I want to do this.”

My mother smiled and said, “It’s too late,” before pushing me onto the ice.

I wish I could say I fell in love from the start, but don’t remember much about that first practice other than being pushed around by a coach and being so embarrassed I quickly learned to propel myself.

Even after a couple practices, I still wasn’t sold on the sport. In my first game, we were in Hamilton, Ontario. I recall sitting on the bench and seeing two players ram into each other and I thought, “Oh, this is real.” Giving me a literal push was the best thing my mother could have done.

It took two full seasons before I really started to get into the sport, and as I improved, it began to fulfill the competitive and physicality that I craved in sports.


The summer leading into my senior year of high school, I was invited to the USA Hockey Development Camp and that is where life began to change. Not only did I meet people from around the country, but I met people like me.

None of us had the same disability, but we could all relate to one another. None of us would be considered “normal” but we were fiercely independent, constantly pigeon-holed and eager to prove our worth. For us, the sport was our normal version of hockey.

My playing career spanned 11 years, two for the United States 20-and-under junior national team, won the first two USA Hockey sled hockey national championships with my club team in Buffalo -- which featured six Paralympic gold medalists and four players that played for the USA development team -- and I traveled to cities I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Pictured is the 2006-2007 USA 20-and-under junior national sled hockey team after winning a tournament in London, Ontario. (Courtesy photo)

I played with and against players with a wide range of disabilities. There were single and double-leg amputees -- many of them military veterans -- and there were those with cerebral palsy and those with a paralysis.

My experiences and interactions taught me how to carry myself and reinforced the ideals of the adult I wanted to become, but most importantly, I learned how to be comfortable with myself as a person.

I’m never going to be “normal” and that’s fine with me.


What To Read Next
Get Local


Must Reads