Back on the ice, back in the game
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Jim Finch’s life changed in a few seconds. It was 1976 and the Aspen resident had just returned home to Minnesota after graduating from Principia College in southern Illinois. He was trimming trees near his home one afternoon and failed to notice a power line that snaked through a group of branches.The accident was devastating, both physically and mentally. Both of Finch’s legs were amputated above the knee after the severe electrocution. Memories of a childhood playing tennis, skiing and ice skating now offered painful reminders of the past and of the struggles ahead.”It was a tough time. It took me almost five years to work through that,” Finch said Wednesday. “Mentally I was a college graduate, but physically I was starting all over.”Athletics was a big part of my life. It was the major way I interacted with friends and family. I felt like that had been taken away. You feel isolated, different, like you’re losing touch with all those people. That’s the toughest thing to deal with.”Finch, 52, no longer feels secluded. He continued to seek out athletic pursuits after his injury. He was back on skis after a 17-year hiatus when he visited Winter Park in 1993. Two years later, he made it to Snowmass – his family’s first ski trip in 25 years. And nine years ago he figured out how to get back on the ice with his introduction to sled hockey.The sport involves negotiating the ice on sleds, gaining speed with the help of barbs attached to two 95-centimeter hockey sticks. Sled hockey first surfaced in Scandinavia and is enjoying modest growth in North America. Finch, one of only a handful of sled hockey players in the valley, is hoping to showcase the sport this weekend when Aspen hosts the Maroon Bells Sled Hockey Tournament.
Finch first learned about the sport in the early 1990s, then witnessed it firsthand in Japan in 1998. He moved to Aspen in late 1995 and soon was working a ski instructor with Challenge Aspen. He became engrossed in the sport and qualified for the U.S. national team. He traveled to Nagano to compete in the Paralympic Games.Competitors skied every other day, Finch remembered. On one day off, he wandered into the ice arena and watched sled hockey. It was the first time he’d ever seen the sport live.Intrigued, Finch talked with the players and met one from Denver. But, because the player had only goalie equipment and no one in the who played sled hockey, Finch let his interest fade – until 2001.It was then that a winter sports clinic for disabled veterans took place at Snowmass. As part of the event, some sled hockey players attended. Finch seized the chance to get in a sled.”I fell in love with it,” he said.Finch said he struggled at first while he figured out how to balance and turn smoothly. Players must lean on one of the two blades on the bottom of the sled to turn.Despite the initial struggles, Finch was so enamored that he decided to try out for the U.S. National team. Because the Ice Garden was closed for much of the winter for remodeling, Finch traveled to Breckenridge every Sunday to skate for hours with a member of the Colorado Avalanche sled hockey team. Finch was the last cut during tryouts. The national team went on to win gold in Salt Lake City.
Undaunted, Finch signed on with the Avalanche and made the national squad in 2004. He played tournaments throughout Canada and Germany. The team also competed in the World Championships in Ornskoldeik, Sweden – longtime Avalanche star Peter Forsberg’s hometown – taking silver with a loss to Norway in the championship.”I thought skiing would be my last competitive sport,” Finch said. “Sled hockey really came along at the right time.”Still, Finch remained one of the lone sled hockey players in the area. Every Tuesday and Friday, he played in recreational games with able-bodied skaters. “They’re really good about including me, and I have a lot of fun,” he said. “I have to be careful not to be behind them or get in their blind spots, so they trip over me. It’s a hard fall.”Finch still hopes the valley one day will have enough sled hockey players to field a second Colorado team. As many as 12 are on the Avalanche roster for various tournaments. That dream took a major step toward becoming reality in 2003. The project manager in charge of building the Aspen Recreation Center called Finch in as a consultant. His primarily task was to discuss accessibility for the new pool, but the ice rink also came up. Managers were receptive to the modifications necessary to make the rink sled hockey-compatible – making entrance doors flush with the ice instead of with the usual lip, and making clear plexiglass boards for players on the bench to look through, among others.”At that time, we became one of only two or three arenas in the country that were set up for sled hockey,” Finch said. “There are still just a handful.”
After the completion of the arena, Finch set about hosting a tournament. The Avalanche and teams from Utah and New York, as well as players from Sacramento, Calif., Phoenix, Ohio and Wisconsin all traveled to Aspen to play in the first Maroon Bells Sled Hockey tournament. The event garnered modest, but positive interest from the community.”Everybody that saw it really loved it,” Finch said. “They really respected the athletes.”This year, the Avalanche, Utah, Phoenix and Sacramento compete in what Finch hopes will become an annual event. In addition, a sled skating clinic on Saturday will be open to the public. Finch is hoping the event raises enough money to purchase new equipment for local rinks. He’s hoping to produce the resources he didn’t have in an effort to help generate interest in the sport.Finch is hoping a crop of new people, able-bodied or disabled, discover the sport that helped change his life.”It’s made such a big difference. Any time you can regain that sense of being part of a community rather than being separate, it is a huge mental shift,” he said. “It just gives you self-confidence. You meet new people, you’re making new friends, you’re out lugging gear around like everyone around. You feel like you’re a part of life.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org