By Jennifer Hoegg
For Nicole McDonald, getting ready for hockey every Sunday morning means getting ready for freedom.
The 20-year-old has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair most of the week. When she was a little girl, her mother built her a skating frame so she could be pushed around on bob skates.
“Sledge hockey is so much better than that,” Nicole said. “When I’m on the ice, I’m free and I can go wherever I want. I can handle the puck and shoot and pass.”
The Acadia student joined the local sledge hockey team in September after moving to Wolfville from the Tantallon area.
Her mother, Mariette McDonald, wants to see her coach and the program rewarded.
Robert Lutes, head coach of the Acadia Minor Hockey Association’s sledge hockey program, is a finalist in Kraft’s Hockey Goes On contest.
The Wolfville man coaches around 15 players of varying abilities ages 10 and up with weekly practices and a number of games a season.
”This is my first year playing for him,” Nicole said. “It’s pretty fun. He makes it a lot of fun and he mixes it up every practice and makes a big game out of it. He’s very passionate about getting new players and advocating for the sport.”
He tells the players, “it doesn’t matter how you play (hockey), it’s Canada’s sport,” she added.
Mariette praises Lutes’ dedication to advocating for his players and the sport – as well as trying to make local rinks more accessible. Getting sleds on and off the ice means building ramps and other challenges.
“Sledges are expensive, ice time is busy and registration fees … they try to keep as low as possible,” Mariette said. “Having a disability is very expensive – it’s not like there is extra money floating around” for families.
Mariette said she is concerned about the financial sustainability of the program and wanted to do something to help. By nominating Lutes and the association for the Kraft competition, she’s hoping to gain some financial stability for the program.
When Lutes heard of Mariette’s idea, he said he “felt rather humbled” to be nominated.
“Then I quickly realized ‘it's not about me,’ but about the players who we coach in sledge hockey and about making people aware of the need to provide opportunities for participation for everyone,” Lutes said.
He speaks as highly of his players as the McDonalds speak about him.
“It's hard to describe the respect I have for the kids who have been given challenges most of us can't even imagine. Most of my heroes are sport heroes, and in the past four years, I have added a number of our players to this list. The ‘get on with it attitude’ of our players is something to learn from.”
Assistant coach James Griffin-Allwood said Lutes is a role model.
“Working with Bob over the last three years has been a constant opportunity to learn,” he said. “His dedication to growing the program and providing an exciting opportunity for growth for children in the area has motivated me to work harder as a coach. His focus on making sure that individual players are setting new personal bests - not simply on team achievements - is one of the most exciting parts of working with him."
After 25 years of coaching “stand-up hockey,” Lutes said his time coaching the sledge version has provided some of the best moments of his life.
“It might look different on the ice, but the hopes, desires and efforts are similar: players putting in the effort to be the best they can be.”
Lutes said he is grateful for the support of the players, parents, coaches and the association for their efforts and support.
If chosen, Lutes’ said he hopes the prize money would be used to develop the program locally and “provide more opportunities for those who are unable to play ‘stand up hockey’.”
Love of the game
Nicole is grateful for the opportunity to keep playing the sport she loves.
“I’ve been a hockey fan since I was a kid,” Nicole said. “Every since I was old enough to stay up late enough on Saturday nights. My dad always watched Hockey Night in Canada. Once I saw it, I said, ‘what the heck is this?’ and I’ve been a Leafs fan ever since.”
When Nicole watched the game, she said she thought to herself, “ I’ll never be able to play this.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” she said. “If you love hockey, you want to play it.”
At 14, Nicole heard of sledge hockey demonstrations in the Halifax area and started asking her mother to take her to one. Mariette was reluctant.
“She was afraid of me getting hurt or getting frustrated,” Nicole said.
“I had been thinking of Paralympians playing this extreme sport,” Mariette recalled, but she caved and they went to a demo at a Sackville rink.
“But she got on that sled and just took off. The smile on her face… I choke up even now.”
“She would be heartbroken if she couldn’t play. That’s all she wants to do,” Mariette said.
“She’s a good hockey mum,” Nicole says of Mariette’s effort.
“I’m still trying to earn my hockey mum wings,” Mariette countered.
Nicole would like to see more accessible rinks for her and her teammates and, like her coach, wants to raise the profile of sledge hockey. With Lutes’ help, she made a case to Acadia for allowing sleds at public skates.
“I did my first public skate (Sunday),”she said. “As long as I’m responsible, I can go on the ice. I educated a couple of people about sledge hockey. I get to educate some people and feel like everyone else at the same time.”
About the coach
“Bob has developed a wonderful experience for our disabled youth in our community… Bob’s commitment includes travels to schools, other minor hockey practices and even, yes, a group of 57 Brownies to demonstrate the sport,” Mariette wrote in the nomination.
“He is dedicated to promoting sport, health, awareness and respect.
“Over the past four years, he has been committed to working out the many kinks in a system not geared to accommodate disabled youth. Artificial ice ramps to access the ice surface at both the Kentville Centennial Arena and Acadia University Athletics Centre are now available. He is working on creating a sustainable program that will keep our youth involved into the future of our hockey community.”
What is sledge hockey?
A game played in a sled specially designed for hockey. Sleds have aluminum frame, a plastic bucket for sitting and two, skate-like blades. Players use two sticks, with a hockey blade at one end and a pick at the other to propel the sled forward. The program welcomes able-bodied player, Lutes noted.
“More opportunities, more players and more fun!!”
About the contest
Five of the 20 Atlantic Canadian finalists will win a cash prize. One will win $100,000; four will win $20,000.
Online voting is March 23 10 a.m. Atlantic time until 1 a.m. March 25.
Results will be announced April 3.