Seasons Magazine


 

A Sled and a Shot
A decade of hockey with the Connecticut Wolfpack

Story by Elaine Lang | Photography courtesy of Simsbury High School

The sled Anthony Kuntz uses to play ice hockey has a black, molded-plastic seat shaped like a bucket with two blades mounted underneath. The straps that secure his legs to the frame have ski-buckle closures. Thanks partly to the sled, custom-made by a company in Ottawa, Canada, Kuntz, 21, of West Hartford, has been able to play ice hockey with the Connecticut Wolfpack since the team’s inception in 2003.

Started for people who have physical challenges, the Wolfpack is a mixed-gender team that adheres to most of the rules that govern stand-up hockey. Kuntz advanced to play left wing for the U.S. Junior National Sled Hockey Team at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver, Canada. Another Wolfpack player, Ryan Pelletier of olumbia, Connecticut, also made the junior national team.

Kuntz’s sled is more than a piece of equipment he uses to slice through the ice. It may well be the reason he now is a senior at Mitchell College in New London, working part time at the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern
Connecticut and thinking about his next goal: earning his master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

Born with spina bifida, a disorder in which the developing embryonic neural tube does not close completely, Kuntz underwent more than 12 surgeries on his feet, spine, head, and knees, some of which made it possible for him to play soccer and baseball in the town’s youth leagues. But his dream of becoming a World Cup soccer player ended in middle school, when it became a challenge for him to maintain his balance, says his mother, Dr. Joanne Kuntz, an emergency-room doctor, the Clinical Director of Palliative Services at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, and Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Traumatology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. “He never thought his spina bifida was going to limit him in any way,” she says. “It was a difficult time. He really struggled with it.”

Without the team, “I don’t know if he’d still be with us,” Kuntz says of her son. “He battled a great deal of depression. I attribute his mental health to his teammates. It was transformational.” Recalling the months before he joined the Wolfpack, the younger Kuntz agrees, “It was pretty depressing. I didn’t have anything that I was proud of myself for.”

During that dark period, he attended a sled-hockey demonstration at the Veterans Memorial Skating Rink in West Hartford. The organizer was Victor Calise, a former plumber who became paraplegic following a biking accident, and is now commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. At the event, Kuntz learned how to secure himself in a sled and use two shortened hockey sticks, one in each hand. The butt ends of the sticks are studded with metal picks, which enable players to propel themselves on the ice and shoot the puck. He has played sled hockey ever since.

When Kuntz is playing well, he says, “I feel like this is what I’m meant to do. Having a good time and doing a great job. I’m where I need to be on the ice and doing exactly what I need to be doing. I know I’m doing a good job when my coach doesn’t say anything to me.”

That coach is Patrick Carney of Granby, who, with his wife Michele Carney and Kenneth Messier of Simsbury, founded the Connecticut Wolfpack. Carney and Messier share a love of ice hockey, which their children played, and they are dedicated to helping people become or remain mobile. Michele Carney and Ken Messier started Chariots of Hope, a nonprofit organization in Bloomfield that refurbishes used wheelchairs and distributes them to people in developing countries and North America. Messier is president of Children & Adult Mobility Project, Inc., which provides physical therapy equipment to injured U.S. troops; he is also CEO of Ti-Trikes, Inc., of
South Windsor, which makes recumbent tricycles.

While Carney coaches the Wolfpack team, Messier handles many of the business duties. In 2006, he helped form the Simsbury-based adult Northeast Sled Hockey League, which now comprises teams from Connecticut and five other Northeastern states. About five years ago, the league became a division of USA Hockey. Its season of competition extends from November to March, with all league games played at the Newington Arena.

Of the 60 sled-hockey teams in the United States, Connecticut Wolfpack is “probably in the top ten” in its performance, says Messier, who is the Northeast League’s commissioner and treasurer. The team finished fourth in the league last year; Carney is hoping for a third-place finish or better this season. “New Hampshire and Pennsylvania are both loaded with national team players,” he says. “We’re more competitive with them now.”

Indeed, three Wolfpack players—Colleen Rock of Farmington, Kelly Lavoie of East Haven, and last year’s team captain, Karen Smith of New Haven—were selected in try-outs this summer in Blaine, Minnesota, to play during the current season for the U.S. National Women’s Sled Hockey Team.

It costs $10,000 to $12,000 annually to finance a league team, Messier says. The Wolfpack is not affiliated with a professional hockey team. Nonetheless, it has some staunch supporters. They include local media and sports figures who participate in a fund-raising game every spring, and Westminster School in Simsbury and The Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, which donate ice time for practices.

The team’s biggest hurdle is not raising money, but recruiting new players to the sport, which has varied levels of play and virtually no age restrictions. Some teams near U.S. military rehabilitation facilities have grown as Army and Navy veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan sign on, but that has not been the case in Connecticut, Messier says.

Carney says that despite what sometimes feels like an uphill climb, “I do it because I believe in commitment.
Commitment has always been at the core of our family. I’ll stay with the program until I feel it is in a position to be taken on by the participants or other people step forward.”

Meanwhile, the Connecticut Wolfpack continues to influence lives.

To be happy, Anthony Kuntz says, people need to take pride in their performance of a skill or a hobby. “For me, at the time, it was hockey. In a sense, it still is. I want to make money and make a difference. People who have gotten spinal cord injuries and are in the hospital—I’d like to help them get the care they need to make a recovery. Some are under the impression their life is ending and there’s nothing to live for.
I don’t want to see anyone else go through that, because it’s not worth it, and it’s not true.”

Writer Elaine Lang, a frequent contributor to Seasons, lives in Simsbury with her family.