Wounded warriors take recovery to ice
February 12, 2013
SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 12, 2013) -- Balanced on a low-lying sled and with a stick in each hand, Army Sgt. Dorian Leon swiftly propelled himself across the ice to enter the scrimmage.
He dodged one opponent and nearly rammed into another as he fought for possession of the puck. He flipped his stick to cup the puck before passing it to an open teammate.
Cheers erupted from the sidelines and Leon's twin sons, perched on shoulders for a better view of the ice, yelled: "Go, Daddy, Go!"
Leon heard the cheers but kept his head in the game as he battled for his team's victory during the San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Tournament, which kicked off Feb. 8.
The three-day tournament, sponsored by the nonprofit Operation Comfort, pitted Leon's team, the San Antonio Rampage, against teams from Chicago, St. Louis, Florida and Colorado at the Ice and Golf Center at Northwoods in San Antonio.
Like Leon, the bulk of the players on the San Antonio team are Wounded Warriors, both active duty and retired. The majority are new to both ice and sled hockey, but developed a passion for the game while undergoing rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid, or CFI, Brooke Army Medical Center's state-of-the-art rehab facility.
Leon was a reluctant newcomer to the sport. He was undergoing treatment at the CFI for a spinal-cord injury suffered in Afghanistan when Fred Jesse, his physical therapist and a Rampage coach, asked him if he'd like to join the team.
"He suggested I try it out, but I said no," Leon recalled. "I had no interest in the game. I had never played ice hockey or watched it."
Convinced it would be beneficial to his recovery, Jesse booked Leon a sled hockey session as a Physical Therapy appointment. After one game, Leon was hooked. He's now one of two active duty players on the team. Two other Wounded Warriors, still patients at the CFI, are training to be on the team.
"It has fantastic benefits," Leon noted. "It helps to build core strength, which is very important with spinal cord injuries, and it gives back a sense of family, of team, to Soldiers."
Across the ice, retired Marine Cpl. Luke McDermott sat on the sidelines, poised to enter the rink. McDermott was injured June 9, 2010, in Afghanista, when the vehicle he was riding in struck a roadside bomb. The injuries resulted in the Marine's loss of both of his legs.
Like Leon, McDermott had never played hockey but his unrelenting PT, Jesse, talked him into trying it out.
"I love the sport," he said. "It's high intensity, constant action, and the exercise is good for the mind and body."
McDermott now attends school in Fort Worth, Texas, but travels to San Antonio when possible to participate in games with his team.
Called into the game, McDermott sped across the ice, joining Leon in a massive clash for the puck. Their former PT and now coach, Jesse, watched them both from the sidelines. Their dedication to the game isn't surprising, he said, and beneficial on many levels.
"It works on their conditioning, their balance," he said. "Plus, it gives them confidence when they're able to accomplish something they never thought they could do."
Jesse spoke proudly of his team's accomplishments. Three of his players -- veterans Rico Roman, Jen Yung Lee and Josh Sweeney -- are on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. They aspire to represent the United States during the Paralympics in Russia next year, he said.
"These guys work well together," he said, wincing slightly as two players collided. "And they play hard."
JT Tyler, a physical therapy assistant at the CFI, agreed.
"Sled hockey proves to them that they can still be athletic and accomplish great things," he explained. "They can overcome."
Thanks in part to the efforts of Leon and McDermott, the San Antonio Rampage prevailed against the Colorado Avalanche that night 3-0. The final winner of the league contest will be determined next month in Chicago.