WEST PARIS — After being stuck in a slump following his multiple sclerosis diagnosis last year, disabled veteran Will Rolfe discovered the sled hockey team, the New England Warriors, which gave him a new lease on life.
The 28-year-old West Paris resident learned in June 2016 that he had MS, which “is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body,” according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation.
Rolfe said an MRI discovered active brain lesions.
“The saw quite a few old lesions [that] traced it back to my military time,” he said, adding he is lucky because now he is covered for medical treatment under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The 2007 Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School graduate served three years of active duty at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and then at the Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for one year. It was three years after he returned home to the Oxford Hills that the brain lesions were discovered.
“Essentially, when they’re not treated, they eat through all the brain matter,” Rolfe said.
His whole left side was paralyzed – which also consisted of shaking limbs and having difficulty getting his left arm or leg in the right spot – and he couldn’t walk without assistance.
“It took about a year – it took a long time recovering [through] a lot of physical therapy through Stephens [Memorial Hospital in Norway] … and in that time is when I found the team the New England Warriors,” Rolfe said. “It’s a nonprofit and it’s mainly made up of disabled veterans.”
So what is sled hockey anyway?
Sled hockey uses all the same equipment as stand up hockey – helmets, elbow pads, shin pads, gloves and hockey pants and socks – plus special sticks and sleds. Players use two sticks that have metal picks to propel themselves across the ice.
“The sleds or sledges we use consist of a frame of aluminum tubing, a bucket which the player is strapped into, and two ice skating blades under the player’s seat,” according to the New England Warriors’ website, www.newenglandwarriors.org.
“It is an incredible amount of core – that is the biggest thing, being able to weave and turn and not fall over,” Rolfe said. Growing up he wrestled and played lacrosse. “I have always enjoyed watching hockey, just never played. It is one of those sports you kind of have to start young to get into.”
Sled hockey – which is referred to sledge hockey outside of the U.S. – was created in the early 1960s in Stockholm, Sweden, “by a group of Swedes who, despite their physical disability, wanted to continue playing hockey,” according to USA Hockey.
Rolfe – who still works at Bridgton Hospital while he works toward a degree in social work at Central Maine Community College through the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program – first learned about the New England Warriors from a co-worker whose sister was the captain of the team.
The captain and co-founder is Christy “Icebox” Gardner, who is a medically retired Army veteran and also plays on the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team. She lent Rolfe all the equipment he needed to get started and now he has the sled hockey bug.
The New England Warriors is a chapter of the nonprofit USA Warriors, which is comprised of wounded and ill service members and veterans and supporters. Most of the players are from Maine, ranging from the Oxford Hills to Lewiston/Auburn to Augusta, and even one teammate is from Nashua, New Hampshire.
“It was cool because you’re with other veterans who kind of understand your way of thinking and kind of encourage you to keep working at getting better,” Rolfe said.
But not all team members are veterans. Take Mahlia “Mini Mao” Schneck for example. She is a high schooler and a double amputee with no feet who Rolfe described as “awesome.”
“Pretty much it was designed … for disabled veterans and if we have other people that are disabled come along, we … don’t say no,” Rolfe said. “It’s hard enough to find enough people for the team anyways. … So it cuts our shifts down from playing to the whole period to now we can switch off and have a break.”
Last year, the New England Warriors claimed the title of North Eastern Sled Hockey League 2016-2017 season B League Champions.
“We were champions for the season and we won the tournament as well. Not to brag,” Rolfe said, smiling. He is referring to the end of the season tournament normally held in Exeter, New Hampshire.
The year before Rolfe joined, the New England Warriors were named the national champions of their class, he said. And he thinks the sport can only grow from here.
“My personal feeling is that sled hockey is going to be a big thing. … It is growing, which is surprising … because it’s disabled sports,” Rolfe said, adding teams from the Midwest are joining their league and final tournament this year will be bigger. “It’s fun to watch, it’s exciting. … If you watch the Olympic level, it’s impressive. … It could really take off.”
Out of the slump
When Rolfe first received his MS diagnosis, he quickly learned there weren’t many resources to help those who are recently disabled bridge the gap to life with a disability. That was until sled hockey came into his life.
“I was in a slump. ‘Where am I going to go from here?’” he wondered. “Then I joined the team and it’s like, ‘Oh now I have sled hockey, I’m going to get better at sled hockey,’ which helps you all around.”
On the ice, Rolfe is known as “The Rookie,” but hopes to earn his stripes and change his name to “The Show Pony” this season. He is number 15 and plays forward on either wing, with his focus on scoring points. Sometimes he plays defense as well, but not as much as offense.
Even though he now loves his new passion, Rolfe described his first game as “terrifying.”
“I had only practiced twice and I was in for the whole period, barely switching out. I was like, ‘Oh my God I don’t know where I am supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing,’” he said. “Luckily I caught on pretty quick. Now it’s more fun than terrifying.”
Instead of terror, Rolfe now finds relief physically and mentally when he hits the ice.
“Once I get on the ice and am able to skate, it is so much better. You get that hour away from everything else,” he said. “With MS I have a heat intolerance so if I were to run, once my body gets overheated my leg acts up. … With sled hockey you’re on the ice, which is cooling enough. Rarely I get to the point I get overheated. … I don’t know if I could play other sports because of the heat.”
Even outside of the hockey season, the team stays in contact through group chats and Rolfe says players can reach out to any of their teammates.
“Everybody has your back,” he said. “We keep kind of a close eye on each other to make sure everyone is doing well physically and mentally. It’s almost therapeutic in a way, which is great.
“We all joke about our disabilities. It is our way of coping. I mean, our coach was drinking out of a prosthetic leg,” he laughed.
And it’s good for Rolfe and the rest of his teammates to have a support system. Even with how far he’s come dealing with MS, he still has bad days.
“Some days my legs will hurt – just like growing pains. I can walk, just not very long or very far,” he said.
He added he gets a lot of bruises from kicking things he doesn’t mean to and stormy weather makes the disease flair up. He also has an orthopedic ankle brace that keeps his foot at a 90-degree angle.
“On the bad days, my foot drops and I will trip over my toes,” Rolfe said. “I do use a cane depending on the real bad days. I haven’t used a wheelchair. I am stubborn. I don’t want to get into a wheelchair until I have to.”
Rolfe’s personal goal is to fill the rink with as many fans as possible for the Warriors’ home game this season.
The game is set for Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Camden Nation Bank Maine Ice Vault at 203 Whitten Road, Hallowell. The game is free and family friendly.