Thanksgiving came a little early for retired Army Sgt. Christy Gardner. The Maine native is one of 15 players selected to the 2017-2018 U.S. Sled Hockey Team.
"This is my fifth season with the National team and I couldn't be more excited for the upcoming season. We've got a great group of girls including three military veterans and a whole lot of talent," Gardner said.
It's a love affair with a sport that began just a few years ago. Born into a military family, she joined the Army shortly after graduating from college in 2005.
But in 2006, while stationed overseas, Gardner sustained life-altering injuries while on a peacekeeping mission.
She'd suffered multiple, traumatic injuries including spinal damage. Both legs have since been amputated below the knee. Her skull was fractured in two places, and the resulting brain trauma wiped out most of her memory. She lost her ability to speak and the hearing in her left ear. She had to re-learn words, spelling, grammar and math from the third-grade level up while dealing with intense seizures. Two fingers on her left hand are missing.
Due to the extent of her injuries, Gardner's doctors supplied her with a list of limitations. She set out to prove them wrong. In 2009, at the encouragement of a fellow veteran, she participated in a winter sports clinic. She immediately fell in love with sled hockey - it was a match made on ice and Gardner has never looked back.
"Despite all that I've been through medically, sled hockey has truly helped me heal physically and mentally with the support of others like me and an opportunity to participate in something that made me proud of the abilities I still have."
As a former collegiate athlete and Soldier, being able to compete and be part of a unit again appealed to Gardner right away. Sled hockey also lets her see all her hard work pay off and keeps her in great shape.
"It's an incredible workout from the waist up. Control of the sled is all in the core and mobility is mainly triceps and latissimus dorsi muscle or "lats", so you get a great workout every day. That ability to put in work and train for a higher cause has been a great motivator," Gardner said.
Sled hockey, or sledge hockey, as it is referred to outside of the United States, originated in Sweden in 1940 and has been played in Europe since 1971. It is very similar to "stand-up hockey" in terms of concept and rules, but with two main differences to how they move around the ice. Participants sit on their skates using an adaptive device known as a sled, which is affixed with two skate blades and a runner in the front to form a tripod and use two shortened hockey sticks to help them navigate the rink. Each stick has a regular hockey blade on one end and a pick, similar to the end of a figure skate, on the other. The pick enables the player to propel themselves across the ice much like in cross country skiing.
"Skating is an amazing feeling. With strong arms and a sled that fits right, you can literally glide around the ice," Gardner said. "I've been in the top three on the team speed-wise and being able to go full steam at an opponent or in a "footrace" to a loose puck is amazing. I especially love that the sport is full-checking, even on the women's side."
Gardner won a gold medal at the 2015 and 2016 World Sled Hockey Championship. With her beloved service dog Moxie cheering her on from the sidelines, the retired Army Sgt. is gearing up for another gold medal run this season.
"We ended last season as the best in the world with a thrilling last second victory over Canada in Oslo, Norway. Now it's time to work even harder to hopefully put the game away a little sooner than that this year!"