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Pittsburgh sled hockey team helps open new rink with UPMC rehabilitation staff

| Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Members of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins senior sled hockey team played at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry earlier in September.
Mighty Penguins player Dan McCoy is a member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and a gold medalist at the 2014 Paralympics Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Playing on a rare type of rink, members of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins senior sled hockey team and the UPMC rehabilitation staff who have treated them met in a game that raised thousands of dollars for the Mighty Penguins organization at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry earlier this month.

UPMC spokeswoman Ashley Trentrock said steps and raised benches were converted to a flat, sled accessible bench with see-through boards for the game.

There are only a few such rinks around the country, according to the USA Hockey website. They allow players to remain in their sleds and skate off the ice into the bench area.

“Throughout Canada, a lot of those kind of boards (are available),” said Mighty Penguins player Dan McCoy, a member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and a gold medalist at the 2014 Paralympics Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. “It's awesome to be able to do that (here).

“You have open ice and a lot more room.”

Opened last month, the Lemieux Sports Complex is the new training facility for the Penguins National Hockey League team, as well as a new center for UPMC Sports Medicine. Named after Penguins great Mario Lemieux, the 185,000-square foot complex includes two full-size hockey rinks.

The Mighty Penguins organization provides competition to people of various ages with disabilities. Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the organization has 52 players on three to four teams.

Executive director Michele Humphreys said a local sporting goods company provides equipment and jerseys.

Before moving to the Lemieux Sports Complex, the teams were based at a facility in Harmarville.

It was the fourth time a Mighty Penguins squad and the UPMC rehab staff met, Mighty Penguins senior coach Ray Harding said.

Humphreys said this year's event raised $15,000, which will be spent on the organization's teams. She believes turnout was robust because of the new venue.

Ashley Barrasso, a child life specialist at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and a rehab-staff team member, enjoyed competing for the first time.

“I loved it,” said Barrasso, 28, of Friendship. “I was completely impressed (by the Mighty Penguins' playing abilities).”

Humphreys said the Mighty Penguins won 6-5 after jumping to an overwhelming lead.

Michael Boninger, the director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, played for the rehabilitation staff for a third year. He said by mastering sled hockey, Mighty Penguins members gain confidence.

“All of a sudden, there's (a level) playing field,” said Boninger, 53, of Squirrel Hill.

Amit Sinha, assistant medical director of the Children's Hospital Rehabilitation Unit, said he gained respect for the Mighty Penguins after playing against them for the first time.

“Their ability to use their core strength to maneuver so skillfully on the ice is amazing,” said Sinha, 33, of Regent Square.

Harding said games are being scheduled against sled teams from other parts of the country.

McCoy, 21, of Fox Chapel said the facility is one of the nicest at which he has played. Besides the rink, he said he likes the healthful food at the concession stand.

“I pinch myself that we're practicing there,” McCoy said.

Mighty Penguins player Nick Halapchuk, 23, of Cheswick also raved about the complex.

“The overall design is the best I have seen,” Halapchuk said. “It seems they put a lot of thought into making sure the facility accommodates everyone.”

Mighty Penguins executive board member Maureen Kunitz said playing at the Lemieux Sports Complex strengthens the bond the organization has to the hockey community.

“I absolutely love that there is an outlet for these young children, adolescents and adults to participate in a sport that they love,” said Kunitz, whose husband, Chris, is a Penguins professional player. “The Mighty Pens provides an outlet for these amazing athletes to showcase their talents.”

Karen Kadilak is a freelance writer.

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