Through their involvement with the Flathead Valley Hockey Association, Steve and Genia Tartaglino get to see a lot of kids fall in love with hockey. It’s an encouraging sight.
But as the association was getting on its feet a few years ago, the Tartaglinos noticed a more disheartening sight: one player’s brother was unable to play because he was in a wheelchair. So the Tartaglinos found a solution. They brought sled hockey to the Flathead Valley.
“That was the whole push behind this – to get kids in wheelchairs to try out hockey,” Genia said. “Kids and adults.”
On Jan. 29-30 at Kalispell’s Woodland Ice Center, the Flathead Valley Hockey Association is hosting its second free sled hockey clinic. The first one was held two years ago and attracted about 35-40 participants, the Tartaglinos said. Adam Page, the youngest player on the USA Sled Hockey team, visited, along with his father Norm.
“It was pretty special to have Adam here,” Steve said. “It was a real neat event.”
Sled hockey, also known as sledge hockey, is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Paralympics, an international event for athletes with physical disabilities. Participants are secured in specially constructed sleds and equipped with two hockey sticks, which they use to propel themselves and to maneuver the puck. The game is played essentially the same as regular hockey.
“What the sleds do is they take a sport that normally people who can’t use their legs at full capacity can’t do and gives them a chance to play,” Steve said.
While focused on the physically challenged, the clinic is open to anybody with an interest in trying sled hockey. Genia Tartaglino said the sport is fun, but “really hard,” especially for people who aren’t accustomed to using their upper body that much.
“You put everybody in sleds and suddenly the disabilities go away,” Steve said.
The hockey association has secured 24 sleds from USA Hockey to be used at the clinic. The association also now owns five sleds, obtained through a USA Hockey grant. With those five sleds, the association can offer the sport throughout the winter, not just during clinics.
The Tartaglinos hope that owning the sleds is the first step in creating a traveling team based out of the Flathead. There are already around 100 kids involved in the Flathead Valley Hockey Association’s regular youth hockey leagues.
Steve, who is the FVHA president, said other groups such as adult drop-in hockey and birthday parties are increasingly using the ice center, which is owned and operated by the association in partnership with the city of Kalispell.
Earlier this month, the association hosted its third annual girls hockey classic featuring 11 out-of-town teams, from Boise to Alberta. There were 170 players and hundreds of fans, the Tartaglinos said, bringing in a lot of money to the local economy over the course of four days.
The clinic is held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on both days at the Woodland Ice Center. Participants can register at the door or in advance by calling Genia Tartaglino at (406) 250-0054. Sleds and other equipment are provided, though participants are encouraged to bring their own helmets if they can.
“It’s free to anybody,” Genia said, “and it’s so much fun to watch.”
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