Ducks Foundation puts sled, Warrior hockey on display
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On any given day, the beautiful and sprawling Great Park Ice facility’s four rinks are bustling with hockey players and ice skaters of every skill level.
But on Aug. 17, the rink hosted a sport of a different kind – one that most people in Orange County probably don’t know much about yet. The Anaheim Ducks Foundation hosted a sled hockey festival, which consisted of an exhibition tournament featuring adult and youth teams representing several NHL organizations as well as a Try Sled Hockey clinic for close to 100 participants of all ages.
Among those teaching new players the basics of the game was Sarah Bettencourt, founder of San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey and a member of the U.S. Women’s Development Sled Hockey Team.
Bettencourt suffers from a rare neurological disorder that forced her to retire as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps almost a decade ago. But she first learned about sled hockey in 2014 and quickly fell in love with the sport.
“At the time, the Ducks didn’t have a sled hockey team and there was no sled hockey in the San Diego area,” Bettencourt said. “So I founded the San Diego Ducks with the help of the Anaheim Ducks because I saw the potential and I love this sport so much. This sport just makes me smile and happy and brings us all together. I love it, and I wanted to give that energy, that joy, that passion to so many other people.”
Her goal through events like the sled hockey festival is to make other people with disabilities aware of the joys of sled hockey.
“Everyone sees that they can play a team adaptive sport where no one looks at you and says, ‘Oh, you’re disabled. Poor you. Can I help you? What can I do for you?'” she said. “Instead, I look at you as a hockey player, and if you’re my opponent and you have the puck, I’m gonna check you. If you’re my teammate, I’m gonna get open and you’re gonna pass it and I’m gonna score. That’s what it’s about. It’s a great equalizer and we love that so much. Now with this amazing free Try Sled Hockey clinic, we have so many people telling me, ‘They’re asking detailed questions about getting a sled, getting sticks.’ It’s amazing. They felt the energy and the passion and the love of this sport, and you can see it on their faces.”
While sled hockey was going on one rink, Great Park Ice also hosted a Try Warrior Hockey clinic. USA Hockey’s Warrior Hockey discipline is dedicated to injured and disabled U.S. Military veterans discharged under honorable or general conditions. As one of the Disabled Hockey Section’s newest disciplines, the Warrior Hockey discipline is growing across the country. While some of the participants played hockey prior to being injured, many try it for the first time for therapeutic reasons.
Heading up that clinic was Michael Vaccaro, a USA Hockey disabled Warrior rep who himself is a military veteran who’s found solace in the game.
“All over the United States, there are teams popping up for disabled veterans, but in Southern California, with so many military bases close by, this is a great opportunity to build a bridge in the relationship between the military and the civilian population,” said Vaccaro.
Vaccaro said that every Warrior team has at least a few players who “really stick out with a story of how hockey has changed them to the better.”
His own story starts when he came home from a tour in Iraq and ultimately elected to enter into therapy through the VA.
“That wasn’t working, but I found this hockey program in Washington D.C., started playing hockey with them, started helping out with sled hockey, and it helped me,” Vaccaro said. “My medication went down, my family life improved, everything just came together. Now every time I’m on the ice, it’s like there’s nothing else out there. When I’m on the ice, nothing bothers me, nothing can go wrong. I’m in my comfort zone.
“All our veterans feel that solidarity is just another example of how programs like Warrior Hockey and sled hockey expand well beyond the confinements of the ice rink.”
— Anaheim Ducks Staff
(Oct. 7, 2019)