“Just don’t sit there, play hockey!” goes the slogan of the Wheelchair Hockey League. The idea is that you can sit there and play hockey at the same time. The 35 players of the metro Detroit WCHL have defined a sport that’s fast, aggressive and highly competitive.
When week three of the 2000-2001 season opened, the undefeated Hornets, captained by Schoolcraft Community College student Tom Martin, were leading the league. As the blue-jerseyed Hornets faced off against Dave Rosen’s 1-0 Outlaws, an expansion team determined to prove itself, the shiny gym floor at Ward Presbyterian Church in Northville Township was lined with fans and families, as eager for victory as the players themselves.
The referee on in-line stakes dropped a Whiffle Ball to start the game, setting off an ardent scuffle for control. Hornet Matt Schwarck, an Eastern Michigan University education major, lofted the ball down the floor, then pushed himself at top speed to catch up with it, jockeying with players zipping ahead in electric wheelchairs, sticks poised. Electric and manual wheelchairs competed for space around the goal, the players displaying their expert skill at stopping and wheeling on a dime to keep from colliding. Sometimes the ball flew past the goalie in a single unassisted shot, but just as often it was nudged in by a subtle flick of a stick at close range.
By the time the game ended 5-2, rookie Outlaw Jeff Bielecki had garnered a hat trick, and the Hornets were vowing late-season revenge.
Wheelchair hockey in the Detroit area is the brainchild of Todd Pasant, who learned to love hockey in high school gym class. In 1995, with the help of his parents and friend Andy Siwarski, 23, now league president, Pasant formed a six-player team with playing time at a local church gym. Pasant, who had muscular dystrophy, died in 1996, but today his dream has grown to a five-team league. Sponsored by the Southfield Hockey Club, the WCHL features an October-to-May season, a Wheeler’s Cup tournament, a monthly newsletter titled Slapshot, an awards banquet, a Web site, all-star games, statisticians, an announcer-DJ and travel to international tournaments.
Play has changed drastically this season — and much to the good, say the players. They’re using goalies for the first time, bringing scores down and forcing a higher level of strategy. Outlaws assistant captain Sheryl Stumbaugh says that in the past, “People with manual chairs or really fast power chairs could get a breakaway and score. Now you might get a breakaway, but you won’t necessarily score. You have to pass the ball around, and it’s made it more of a team sport.”
Stumbaugh, who works in a Farmington Hills youth program and has an impressive reach, says that players who weren’t quite sure where they fit in have found a home in front of the net, which is regulation size for floor hockey — a few feet wider than a wheelchair turned sideways. “The ability needed as goalie is the ability to really focus in on the ball and use your whole chair, not just the stick,” she explains. “You can use your back tires to block the ball. Some players have learned how to turn their front tires to get the ball back out of the net.”
After three periods at goalie in the season’s first two games, 11-year-old Hornet Joe Zenicki had a perfect save record, blocking 21 of 21 shots.
The WCHL is unique among wheelchair hockey leagues in that it admits both electric and manual chair users (although only those using electric wheelchairs may play goalie). Ages range from 10 to 28, with most team members in their late teens or early 20s. Their disabilities include muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy and injuries caused by swimming accidents. Twice a year the league sponsors an all-star game on ice, with able-bodied pushers.
Players may modify their sticks to increase control. Some, lacking the upper body strength to lift a stick, for instance, join two hockey sticks together to form a V at the bottom. This stick is attached to their chair; they trap the ball in the V and push it down the floor. Players may also attach a dowel to the stick for better ball control.
One thing you won’t see is checking. The intent is to prevent games from becoming a wheelchair demolition derby, with players smashing into each other or jamming opponents with their sticks. All wear seat belts, and injuries are few.
Although the parents involved in the league — like parents everywhere — may say that its main goal is to have fun, the competition is fierce. Matt Schwarck’s aggressive style, for instance, proclaims his attitude towards sports, which his uncle Mark Shimp spells out: “Matt was brought up that sports is not fun, sports is about winning, and the only way to have fun is to win.”
League treasurer Mary Lou Siwarski says the games “can get pretty intense and fast-paced. It’s their chance to get out their competitiveness. This is no powder-puff league.”
Schwarck wants to spend more time hanging out with fellow Hornet Jennifer Deneau, a consistent scorer and three-sport athlete. Besides swimming on a team, Deneau plays wheelchair basketball for the Sterling Heights Challengers, who travel to tournaments around the country. Wheelchair basketball is a rougher sport than hockey, allowing contact between chairs that often means players ending up on the floor. “It’s just a part of the game,” says Deneau, who’s also tumbled on the hockey floor. “You just get back up and go harder.”
Parents say that hockey is the highlight of the players’ week. League doctor Dave Simpson marvels, “Their intensity of play — I’ve had several kids in the intensive care unit, and their question for me is, when can I go back and play hockey?” Brandon Lesner, assistant captain of last year’s champion Seals, comes all the way from Holly. Lesner says, “You look forward to it, you plan your whole week around not being tired for hockey — like anybody else that’s in a league.”
Outlaws captain Rosen, a student at Harrison High School in Farmington Hills, has been playing for four years and was chosen best defensive player in the 1999-2000 season. The highlight of his career was last season’s tournament in Toronto — the first time WCHL members played with goalies. He likes the league, he says, not only for the hockey but because of the chance to meet other disabled people. Schwarck, who has spina bifida, says that before the WCHL, he’d known only two other people in wheelchairs. To further the social end, the league sponsors a parent-free hotel weekend once a year.
In August 2001 a WCHL all-star electric team will travel to Minnesota to play teams from Canada, Britain and Germany. If they win, their victory will be finer than the Stanley Cup.
Check out the WCHL Web site at www.scorezone.com/wchl. Next games are at 4 p.m. Dec. 2 and Dec. 9 at Ward Presbyterian Church. New players may join the league midseason as substitutes. For more information, call 734-729-0996. Financial donations and volunteer help are much appreciated.Jane Slaughter is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send comments to