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Ice-time ambition: Fundraiser to help disabled hockey team go to nationals

Tyler Sheperksy, 12, poses with his sled hockey head coach and HOPE Inc. founder Adair Grommesh at the Fargo ice arena where they practice weekly. (Submitted photo)

An Olympic-sized dream thrums in Tyler Shepersky's heart.

He wants to be on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.

Yes, sled hockey.

The 12-year-old from Menahga was born without muscles in his legs. Diagnosed with Arthrogryposis, a constriction of the joints, Tyler's hips, knees and ankles have limited use. He has been bound to a wheelchair full-time, but none of that prevents this seventh grader from playing his all-time favorite winter sport.

To showcase sled hockey, Tyler and his fellow teammates will scrimmage against four local teams from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19 in Park Rapids. The Ted O. Johnson Ice Arena is donating the ice time. The public is invited to attend the exhibition. While there's no admission fee, freewill donations help the team.

Sled (or "sledge," as it's referred to outside the U.S.) hockey was invented at a Stockholm, Sweden rehabilitation center in the early 1960s by a group of Swedes who, despite their physical disability, wanted to continue playing hockey.

"Sled hockey is getting bigger and bigger," says Tyler's dad, Lee Shepersky. He bought one of the sleds so he can practice with his son.

Overseen by USA Hockey, the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team represents the U.S. in international competitions. Currently the defending Paralympic and World Champions, Team USA has to date claimed three Paralympic Winter Games gold medals, three International Paralympic Committee Sled Hockey World Championship gold medals, four World Sled Hockey Challenge titles and, most recently, the 2016 IPC Pan-Pacific Championship title.

Dedication

Every weekend, the Sheperskys travel 180 miles round-trip to Moorhead for Tyler's sled hockey practices, organized by HOPE Inc. It's a nonprofit agency that provides family-friendly sporting and recreation to children and adults with mobility challenges. It supplies wheelchair sports, adaptive equipment and morale support for its family members. Siblings, parents and friends are encouraged to play, too. HOPE Inc. offers a variety of sports, like adaptive downhill skiing, dance, baseball, volleyball and more.

"Everyone deserves the opportunity to play sports and reap the benefits that come along with being part of a team," says HOPE Inc. founder Adair Grommesh. "So many life skills are learned from being part of a team — sportsmanship, learning to win and lose, communication and teamwork — along with an increase in self-esteem and confidence."

HOPE Inc. began in 2006 with five families. Now it serves 140 families.

"What makes it so great is the families," Lee said.

"They're really family-oriented, family-driven so we can participate together," added Jeni, Tyler's mom.

From mid-November to mid-April, Tyler plays with the HOPE Hurricanes in the Junior Competitive Division. Most of his teammates are between 12 and 14 years old. They hail from Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks and Park Rapids.

Sled hockey follows typical ice hockey rules, with the exception of the equipment. Players sit in specially designed sleds on top of two hockey skate blades. The frame is made of aluminum, so it's lightweight. There are two short hockey sticks for each player, and the sticks have metal picks for players to propel themselves.

"It's full-on hockey," Jeni says.

A couple years ago, Education Minnesota Menahga raised over $5,000 for Tyler and his family to purchase hockey equipment and cover travel expenses to practices and tournaments. It also allowed them to build a backyard hockey rink.

"I have been blessed to know Tyler Shepersky and the Shepersky family since I returned to Menahga in 2012," said Menahga High School Principal Mark Frank. "They have left a lasting impression on not only me, but also our school and community with their determination to achieve Tyler's dream of making the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team in five to 10 years."

In early April, Tyler and the HOPE Hurricanes will make their third appearance at the National Disabled Hockey Festival. The largest festival of its kind, this year's event will be held in San Jose, Calif.

"They've developed enough practice and enough skill to play at this level," said Jeni.

Scouts will be at nationals, watching the players, she explains. Some sled hockey camps are by invite only.

Important ice time

On Sunday, the HOPE Hurricanes face off against Park Rapids High School Hockey Alumni, the Rehm family, Midway Snurdbirds and Menahga School staff. It's valuable scrimmage time for the Hurricanes before they head to nationals.

Lee, a 1996 Park Rapids High School graduate, invited some of his hockey alumni friends to challenge the HOPE Hurricanes.

The Menahga School team comprises Frank, 5th grade teacher Dan Besonen, 6th grade teacher Cody Pulju, kindergarten teacher Nick Jasmer and Phy. Ed. teachers Isaiah Hahn and Lindsay White.

Frank was part of a team that played at a similar fundraiser two years ago.

"It didn't take long for us to see that we were out matched," he remembers. "The Hurricanes seem to glide across the ice effortlessly, switching their sticks back and forth to propel them across the ice and to handle the puck all while balancing on two narrow skates mounted under their sled. I recall a burning sensation in my arms, along with the difficulty to balance on the sled as I tried to keep up with Tyler as he passed me by with the puck for a score, all with a smile on his face. That is why I am excited to support Tyler and HOPE Inc. The smiles that it brings to these athletes faces is priceless."

Dream big

"I guess sled hockey changed my life dramatically because otherwise I wouldn't know what I'd be doing on weekends," Tyler says.

He likes the camaraderie of playing with people who share the same disability.

He's both nervous and excited about the national festival. His favorite part is playing other competitive teams his age, hanging out with his team and making new friends.

"As a parent, I think it's given him confidence, goals," said Jeni. "It's something rewarding and fulfilling for us to be a part of."

The Sheperskys are especially grateful for the acceptance and generosity from Menahga School and the community.

And Tyler knows what he needs to do to achieve his goal.

"Work hard. Get better every day," he said.

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