Riley Oldford was once the only kid in Yellowknife, N.W.T., who played hockey sitting down.
While his peers tied their skates ahead of a game, the small, fair-haired 12-year-old would put aside the walker he uses to get around and strap into a seated sled, one usually used for sledge hockey.
Born with cerebral palsy, as well as a connective tissue disorder and chronic lung disease, Oldford has limited mobility. So in 2011, his parents bought him a sled to allow him to play hockey with his friends.
Ever since, Oldford has propelled himself around the ice using his arms and two sticks, while his teammates skated, upright, alongside him.
But others became curious about his unique way of playing the game. After encouraging friend after friend to try out his sled, Oldford has now inspired the formation of Yellowknife’s first sledge hockey team.
About a dozen players took part in the team’s debut tournament game this month at the local arena, known as the Multiplex. That’s more than half of the 20 or so players who regularly rotate through the practices.
Parents help strap their kids into sleds and carry them out onto the ice, just as Oldford’s parents have always done for him.
Now they all look like him on the ice, even though his teammates don’t have physical disabilities.
Liam Leonard, 11, was among the first to buy his own sled in order to play with Oldford.
He says the decision was about helping his friend, but adds that Oldford has “done a really great job of making it fun” for the other players.
Leonard still plays “stand-up” hockey, but says this new sport allows him to “get out on the ice a bit more often,” and provides his arms with “a good workout.”
Unlike Leonard, most of the players don’t own their sleds; the arena now stores a pile of them that have been paid for through fundraising efforts.
Great option for non-skaters
Since skating ability isn’t required in a game where players are seated, non-skaters have been drawn to the team as well.
Morgan Stabel, 10, says she finds the game “easier than stand-up hockey.”
With inclusivity at the heart of the team, even some parents have joined in.
Oldford’s mom, Sharon, and her husband, Craig, each have their own sleds, which they share with any adults willing to try.
Both grew up skating, but since Riley took on sledge hockey, Sharon says, it’s “kind of taken over regular hockey.”
The Oldfords have raised money to buy extra sleds so more players can give the sport a go. They’ve also negotiated ice time with the local minor hockey league, and they credit the community in helping them grow the sport locally.
Their dedication is about more than just hockey. For a long time, the couple could only dream that their son would ever play a sport.
‘He defied the odds’
After a complicated pregnancy, Riley was born nearly two months premature. Doctors told his parents he wouldn’t live past his first day, so the Oldfords immediately had him christened in hospital, preparing for the worst.
Riley ended up spending more than 100 days in intensive care, and most of those days on life support. Baby photos show him as a tiny infant amid a mess of medical tubing and machinery, working to keep him alive.
He was eventually released, but with no guarantee he’d ever walk or talk.
“He defied the odds,” says Sharon.
Despite the early prognosis, Riley has little trouble communicating now. Though he sometimes can run short of breath, he has lots to say, especially about sledge hockey.
Riley says he fell for the sport around six years ago when Paralympians from Team Canada held an event in Yellowknife to encourage locals to try sleds.
“I was out for the whole time they were on the ice,” he says. “I think it was two hours.”
Ever since, he’s been hooked on sledge hockey. He has met many of the Team Canada Paralympic players and has evidence to prove it; his bedroom is teeming with pucks and sticks signed by his sports idols.
Reminders of Riley’s long journey are never far away. Signed hockey jerseys hung up around his bedroom feature the number 68, representing the days he spent on life support as a baby.
He says it was after that 68th day that his family knew he would live. Now, he says, “That’s just my number.”
Though Riley is at the centre of the new Yellowknife sledge team, he’s quick to credit those he plays with for joining in. “They’re really good friends,” he says. “They do a lot of things just so I can [join in] with them.”
Riley hopes that sharing the story of his sledge team might inspire kids in other parts of the country to take on the game.
His team, which has yet to settle on a name, has already gained the attention of some Team Canada Paralympians. Tyler McGregor, who represented Canada in sledge hockey at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, came to Yellowknife to coach the group after the team was formed.
The visit was paid for by a grant, which will also allow other Paralympians to fly to Yellowknife and coach the players in January.
Until then, the team will play every week and is always looking for new players. All are welcome to join.