California Dreamin'

NHL Rivals Team Up To Help Wounded Warriors Move Forward Through Sled Hockey
Gann Matsuda

The dark clouds and steady rain that created a dreary atmosphere outside couldn’t put a damper on the excitement inside the Ice-Plex in Escondido, Calif., where the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks teamed up to stage a “So Cal Warrior Sled Hockey Learn To Play Clinic.”

With only 35 miles between them, the Kings and Ducks compete on the ice, but also for much of the same territory, in terms of building a fan base. But on this day, none of that mattered. They were united for a common purpose.

“We don’t partner on many things, but for this, you throw out any competition,” said Champ Baginski, fan development manager for the Ducks. “You just want to help in any way you can because it’s such a great cause.”

“The rivalry between the Kings and Ducks is one of the best in the nation,” added Chris Crotty, director of hockey development for the Kings. “But putting something together for our active duty military and our veterans rises above all that, so we’re working together to make this happen.”

They also enlisted the services of Dustan Brewer, president of the USA Wounded Warrior Sled Hockey Association, and a decorated U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan six times, and twice to Africa.

“[This clinic] means a great deal,” Brewer said. “As a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and from a traumatic brain injury, I want to help stop the epidemic of 22 veterans who kill themselves each day. That’s a huge number, so every veteran we can save, that’s a big deal.”

Exposing injured servicemembers to a fun and physical sport like sled hockey is not only a great form of physical therapy, it also allows them to experience the camaraderie of participating in a team activity.

“This is the only full contact Paralympic sport, and most former military like the athletic part of that,” Brewer said. “It brings them back into a cohesive team environment, just like while they were in the military.”

Hans Blum, 34, an explosive ordinance disposal technician in the U.S. Army, was happy to pay it forward by helping new players during the clinic. He was deployed three times to Iraq, and once to Afghanistan, where he lost both of his legs after stepping on an improvised explosive device.

“I started playing with the USA Warriors about six months after [my injury]. They were big on it at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.] because their goal is to utilize hockey to help wounded warriors suffering from PTSD or stress to get better,” Blum said.

“A lot of military guys end up in situations where you’re used to an active lifestyle, but then you get injured, all that goes away, leading to depression and PTSD. Just having hockey, as a means to escape. Just being on the ice, you forget about everything else. It’s therapeutic, both physically and mentally.”

Sarah Bettencourt, 32, knows that all too well. She was training to be a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot when she was inflicted with a rare form of encephalopathy that can cause paralysis, blindness, deafness or a plethora of other serious issues, some permanent, others temporary.

“When I was medically retired [in 2012], I felt like I lost everything. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was becoming depressed and lazy. I didn’t know how to get out of the house, be independent. I didn’t know how to do anything.

“[Sled hockey] gave me my life back. [Now] I get to help other people the way others helped me, so I’m still serving, just in a different way. That’s what a lot of our military members want. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and we’re giving them something to be a part of. Come be a part of a team again.”

If the clinic, which drew 26 participants of all ages, can help even one servicemember the organizers will deem it a huge success.

“The biggest thing was seeing the smiles,” Brewer said. “One individual had never been on the ice before, never skated a day in his life, but he fell in love with it and he’s going to continue with the sport. I also talked to a couple of others and they’re very interested in continuing.”

Jose Estrada, 29, of South San Diego, was one of those who had never tried sled hockey before. Even though he needed a little prodding, he now hopes to continue playing.

“I play wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, but it was nothing like that at all,” said Estrada, who was paralyzed from the waist down at age 12. “When you’re on the ice, you have to keep your balance on the sled because it’s really sensitive. I did one push, and I fell. It was challenging, but a lot of fun.

“I definitely want to practice to see if I can get better, and if someone says that I should consider joining the team, maybe something could happen there. I’d play three sports. It’s something I’d like to continue.”
That’s exactly what organizers were hoping for.

“We hope to be able to recruit some new athletes for the Ducks and the Kings programs,” said Todd Jenkins, a driving force in the Southern California sled hockey community. “But mostly, we want people to know that this is an option and that there are places they can go to for this kind of therapeutic recreation.

“We want to continue to expand the sport. We want people to learn that this is something they can do, that they can benefit from, and share with others.”

Gann Matsuda is the publisher of Frozen Royalty, an online blog dedicated to the coverage of the Los Angeles Kings, the AHL's Ontario Reign and the NHL.


Who is your favorite 2023/2024 NHL Rookie?
Connor Bedard
Matthew Knies
Brock Faber
Logan Stankoven
Logan Cooley
Total votes: 3