Meet the Hurricanes, sled hockey's defending junior champions

Hope sled hockey
Tyler Shepersky, 14, of Menahga, Minn., uses his stick move the puck down the ice as the HOPE Hurricanes sled hockey team practice Saturday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2018, in Fargo, N.D.
Dave Wallis for MPR News

The skater flies across the rink to snare the hockey puck before spinning on a dime to slide a pass across the ice — just as an opposing player sends her sprawling.

Both of the teenagers — and the rest of the athletes scattered across the practice ice here at Angels Arena — are strapped onto narrow metal frames balanced on skate blades. They propel themselves across the ice using short hockey sticks with spikes on one end and a blade for controlling the puck on the other.

Off the ice, they use wheelchairs to get around.

But on the ice: They're the Hurricanes, a national-championship junior sled hockey team, preparing to defend their second title this spring. They're among the best youth sled hockey players in the country. And at least three of these athletes have their eyes on the U.S. national team — and the Paralympic Winter Games.

"Sled hockey is very competitive, so there's a lot of crashing into each other, there's no doubt on that one," said 14-year-old Chloe Kirkpatrick of Bemidji, Minn., who's been on the team since she was 10.

Chloe was born with spina bifida and spent the first six years of her life in a Chinese orphanage. Adopted at age seven, she had her first chance to try sled hockey four years ago. She remembers that first time on the ice.

Hope sled hockey
Chloe Kirkpatrick, 14, of Bemidji, MN, smiles as she advances across the ice during the HOPE Hurricanes sled hockey team practice Saturday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2018, in Fargo, N.D.
Dave Wallis for MPR News

"It was like you being free, you can do anything you want on ice, like speed," she said. "You're free almost like nothing's holding you back."

Her mom, Bradi Kirkpatrick, jokes that Chloe has a "need for speed" and sometimes gets in trouble at school for rolling her wheelchair too fast.

Together she and her daughter make the roughly five-hour round trip drive from their home in Bemidji to Fargo every weekend for Saturday and Sunday practice.

There are few options for kids who use wheelchairs to play hockey in Minnesota. But the Moorhead-based nonprofit HOPE Inc. sponsors youth and adult teams, in addition to several other activities from curling to yoga to theater that it offers for people with mobility challenges. And so, the Kirkpatricks drive.

Husband-and-wife team Bill and Adair Grommesh founded HOPE more than a decade ago. Bill became the junior team's hockey coach a few years later, even though he admits, with a laugh: "I still can't skate."

No matter, apparently: Two years ago, the HOPE Hurricanes won USA Hockey's national youth sled hockey championship in the league's Class B bracket, beating a team from Colorado Springs, Colo., and another from New Hampshire. Last year, they moved up to Class A, where they'd play teams from much larger metro areas than Fargo-Moorhead.

"I was really nervous and wondering if we could compete at that level," Bill Grommesh said. "But you know, the kids, boy, they played their hearts out."

It paid off. The Hurricanes were last year's Class A champs.

Hope sled hockey
Coach Bill Grommesh talks with players during a break in the skating as the HOPE Hurricanes sled hockey team practice Saturday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2018, in Fargo, N.D.
Dave Wallis for MPR News

"We pull in from roughly a population of 250,000," Bill said. "We're going up against teams with millions in their population, so it's kind of an anomaly that we have such athletes."

Adds Adair: "We went and knocked off everybody like David and Goliath. Baltimore and Washington D.C., ... Philadelphia."

National championships aside, just playing sports can be a big deal for kids who use wheelchairs, Adair Grommesh said.

"To be able to go back to their classmates, their peers and say, 'Yeah, I play sports too. I play contact sports. I'm not a China doll. I'm roughing it up. I'm in the mix. I'm living life,'" she said.

On HOPE's adaptive hockey teams, everyone gets a chance to play. Those who can't propel themselves across the ice can have a skater push their sled.

The coaches, players and parents all say the sport doesn't always get the respect it deserves.

"A lot of times it's 'oh, that's nice, there's something for the disabled kids.' But then they come and watch, it's rough, they play hard," said Kristine Boser from West Fargo, N.D., whose 16-year-old son Grant plays for the Hurricanes. He's tried out twice for the U.S. national sled hockey team.

Boser says kids in wheelchairs face a long list of things they can't do, and adaptive sports give them a chance to get off the sidelines.

It also provides a supportive community, where her daughter doesn't need to worry about being different, said Bradi Kirkpatrick.

Hope sled hockey
Tyler Shepersky, 14, of Menahga, MN, talks with Chloe Kirkpatrick, 14, of Bemidji, MN, before the HOPE Hurricanes sled hockey team practices Saturday afternoon, Dec. 29, 2018, in Fargo, N.D. In the background is Chloe's mother Bradi.
Dave Wallis for MPR News

"The kids she plays with, she loves them," she said. "These are the people that she talks about on a daily basis, this is the sport that she loves so much."

Chloe would love to win another national title — the Hurricanes are headed to Florida to play in the championship again this year — but her ultimate goal is to make the U.S. national team and return to China to compete in the Paralympic Winter Games in 2022. She's one of several Hurricanes working toward a spot on the U.S. national sled hockey team.

Bradi Kirkpatrick said hockey has changed her daughter's life.

"She has so much confidence. She is fearless, she's an absolutely fearless kid, and I think part of it is because she knows she's good at this," she said. "And she takes that into other avenues of her life, as well."

Tyler Shepersky from Menahga, Minn., also wants to be a Paralympian. The 14-year-old lifts weights and shoots 300 pucks every night in his garage so he can get faster and improve his puck-handling skills.

"On the ice, you just feel normal," Shepersky said. "It is a really, really physical sport and It takes a quite a bit of skills, and it's just really fun to play."

And for 14-year-old Ryan Giese from Fargo, playing hockey is an escape.

"[It] just provides a place to get away from everything else in life. Hang out with your friends, play some hockey, be competitive," he said. "When you're not in your sled, all of us have a disability, so there's obviously limitations to everything you can do, (but) when you're out there everything is just all you."

Ryan's dad, Chris, straps on a sled to help coach the Hurricanes. He says it's remarkable to see Ryan play hockey and skate with his younger brother, who is not disabled.

"We're going up to the lake, and I'm going to plow off a rink, and the boys will skate and I'll try to keep up with them, and it's something we can do together," he said. "And that's pretty cool."

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