Disabled vets on the move in Snowmass | AspenTimes.com

Disabled vets on the move in Snowmass

Veterans celebrate a score in a sled-hockey game at the Lewis Ice Arena on March 30.
Jeremy Wallace/Snowmass Sun |

Like most days at the Lewis Ice Arena, two teams of hockey players were gearing up to get out on the ice Monday morning.

They were putting on pads and strapping into skates — except this time, they had to sit down into those skates, and coaches and volunteers had to lift them up and pull them out onto the ice.

Once out there, though, these men and women — many of whome no longer have use of their legs — propel themselves across the ice with the help of hockey sticks modified with ice picks on their tips. Some get help from volunteers who push the backs of their sleds around, and they all need help sometimes when their sleds tip over, but regardless, they’re on the move.

Sled hockey is one of the many activities offered during the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, a recreational program offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs for 29 years. Headquartered in Snowmass Village, close to 400 veterans are participating this year, said Jordan Schupbach, publicist for Veterans Affairs.

Probably the most popular activity during the clinic is adaptive skiing, but the program also offers Nordic skiing, rock climbing, scuba diving, snowmobiling, curling and self-defense. Like with sled hockey, some of those activities require adaptive technology so that any veteran can participate, regardless of their disabilities.

“(The Department of Veterans Affairs) really is a pioneer of adaptive sports,” Schupbach said.

Sometimes that takes a little creativity: When Joey Avellone, of Illinois, first came to the clinic in 2003, volunteers taped his hands to his sticks so that he could move about the ice. But with his sticks secured in an upright position, the competitive Marine Corps veteran couldn’t hit the puck.

“I was pushing myself around,” Avellone said. “I was knocking people over, but I didn’t get to hit the puck. I didn’t get to score any goals.”

After that, push bars were added to the backs of the sleds so that Avellone and other veterans like him could be pushed around the ice, he said. That requires teamwork with him and his pusher so that Avellone can get after the puck. But now he can play.

“It’s not so much about competition, although you saw us out here playing hockey today: I wasn’t slouching, I was going after it,” Avellone said. “There’s just so much stuff for everybody to try and see if they like, and if they do then they can pursue doing whatever event that they find that they like as a recreation event outside of the VA and the winter sports clinic.”

For Avellone, that includes scuba diving, something he did while in the Marine Corps but never tried recreationally until three years ago at the clinic.

This event doesn’t happen without volunteers, Schupbach said. This year there are about 600 volunteers working at the Winter Sports Clinic, about 175 of whom are from the Aspen Elks Lodge.

One Elks member, Debbie Overeynder, has been volunteering at the clinic for about five years. After helping out on the ice many times, she decided this week to have a go at sled hockey herself.

“I got an appreciation of what it’s like — especially when you fall over and you turtle and you can’t get yourself back up — for people who can’t get themselves back up,” Overeynder said. “I had to have somebody come help me, pull me up. That was amazing.”

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