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Sled hockey league set to begin

| Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010

The Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins sled hockey team has come a long way since its formation in 1998.

The organization's original goal was to give children and adults with a physical disability an opportunity to play a sport and stay active.

Over the years, the team has expanded in membership and participated in a growing number of competitive tournaments.

This weekend, the Mighty Penguins will host a season-opening tournament for the newly formed Mid-American Great Lakes Sled Hockey League.

For Mighty Penguins players, formation of the league means more games and a chance to compete for a league championship and national title. The national tournament will be held at the USA Hockey National Disabled Festival on April 1-3 in Blaine, Minn.

"Most of us have been waiting awhile for this chance," said Mighty Penguins forward Daniel McCoy, 16, of Cheswick. "It's a great feeling."

In sled hockey, players sit on a narrow sled, balancing on two blades, and propel themselves with a pair of specially designed mini-hockey sticks. Essentially, all ice hockey rules apply.

In addition to McCoy, the Mighty Penguins players are Cheswick's Nicholas Halapchuk, Greensburg's Cody Gray, Nevin Gray and Michael Kempka, Homer City's Barnabas Kester, Jeannette's Zach Harding, North Hills' Kyle Merbach, Penn Hills' Jonathan Stark, Plum's Kelsey DiClaudio, Saltsburg's Josh Wirt, and Wexford's Daniel Hefley.

Most of the players were born with a disability, such as spina bifida, while some were involved in a serious accident. They range in age from 13 (DiClaudio) to 41 (Merbach).

"When you tell people it's sled hockey, you tend to get the 'Oh, isn't that nice?' syndrome," said Mighty Penguins coach Ray Harding, whose son, Zach, plays forward. "When they come out and see a game and all the hits and checking, it opens up their eyes. There's a lot of tough hits. We were in Canada for a tournament recently, and when we left there was a little bad blood."

The Mighty Penguins players are excited about being able to unveil the new league with a large tournament in their home city. They will travel to other cities for tournaments later in the season.

Wirt, 26, has been with the Mighty Penguins sled hockey team since it started 12 years ago. He took part baseball, basketball and wrestling before he was in a car accident in 1994 that left him in a wheelchair.

"For so many of my family and friends to be able to watch close to home, it means a lot for that to finally happen," said Wirt, a defenseman.

Several Mighty Penguins players have become accomplished in their sport. Wirt captured a gold medal at the Winter Paralympics in Utah in 2002. McCoy is a member of the U.S. national sled hockey team, and Hefley and Nevin Gray compete for the national junior team.

In addition to being the youngest member of Mighty Penguins, DiClaudio is the only female. The 13-year-old attends O'Block Junior High School in the Plum School District and plays forward.

"She doesn't take any crap," coach Harding said. "She's mixes it up with the biggest of them. Some of the other players on other teams are a little apprehensive until she lays the first check into them. That's an eye-opener for other players."

Sled hockey was invented in Sweden in the 1960s and continues to expand in the United States. The Mighty Penguins are on the cutting edge of that growth.

"The new Mid-American Great Lakes Sled Hockey League is a positive step towards the growth of sled hockey across the country," USA Hockey disabled section chair J.J. O'Connor said. "The new league is the culmination of many years of hard work by volunteers, parents and players."

Additional Information:

Sled Hockey tourney

The Mid-American Great Lakes Sled Hockey League's inaugural tournament is this weekend. The event is free, but a donation of $5 is appreciated.

Nov. 20 at BladeRunners, Harmar

• 9:20 a.m. — Fort Wayne Flyers vs. Ohio United

• 9:40 a.m. — Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins vs. Grand Rapids Sled Wings

• 3 p.m. — Michigan Sled Dogs vs. Fort Wayne Flyers

• 5:40 p.m. — Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins novice vs. Johnstown novice

• 6:10 p.m. — Grand Rapids Sled Wings vs. Ohio United

• 7 p.m. — Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins vs. Michigan Sled Dogs

Nov. 21 at Valley Sports Complex, New Kensington

• 7:45 a.m. — Grand Rapids Sled Wings vs. Fort Wayne Flyers

• 9:10 a.m. — Michigan Sled Dogs vs. Ohio United

• 12:20 p.m. — Fort Wayne Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins

• 1:45 p.m. — Michigan Sled Dogs vs. Grand Rapids Sled Wings

• 3:30 p.m. — Ohio United vs. Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins

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