Mike Leavitt, a CTA plumbing designer, is about the least likely hockey coach you’ll ever meet.
An Idaho native, he’d attended a handful of Idaho Steelheads minor league games, but had never played; he’d actually never donned skates before. But back in 2003, his son, Hunter, then 5 years old, attended a “Try Hockey For Free Day” and fell in love with the sport. So Mike signed up for a level one coaching clinic in fall 2004 where he learned about the game of hockey and how to skate. He assisted coaching during Hunter’s first season.
Mike’s daughter, Mikayla, 7, has spina bifida; she was born with part of her spinal cord exposed. She’s had several corrective surgeries in her young life, but her feet are largely numb, she walks with braces on her legs, and falls carry the risk of paralyzing her. So she seemed an unlikely candidate for a life in hockey. But watching big brother gear up and skate around was motivation enough for her to venture out onto the ice with the help of a walker-like skating trainer.
She, too, was hooked — and just like that, the Leavitts were officially a hockey family.
Mike poked around and discovered sled hockey, the stand-up sport’s Paralympic counterpart. [See a video about the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team here.] After chatting with the local hockey association president, she told Mike if he thought he could get sled hockey off the ground in their community, he should go for it. And so he did.
He started by visiting local physical therapists’ offices and meeting with parents of disabled children. The association president talked with city leaders in Idaho Falls, ID, co-owners of the local ice rink, and a “Try Sled Hockey For Free” event was organized in December 2012. Fifty-seven peopled showed up that first day, and suddenly Mike Leavitt was a hockey parent of two, a program organizer, and the first and only youth sled hockey coach in Idaho.
Securing funding has been the biggest challenge for Mike since undertaking his assignments. The local ice rink costs $175 per hour to rent out, and the purchase price of sleds ranges from $600 for a basic model to more than $700 for a version with push bars and a high-backed seat. Mike has secured multiple grants from USA Hockey; and the group ships out loaner sleds for events, but the sleds must be sent back within a few days. After multiple fundraising events (Mike DJs these; add that to his list of roles), the local association scraped together enough money to purchase 10 sleds. That’s the bare minimum to be able to rotate the kids onto the ice, Mike says. But to launch a league, he’ll need many more.
By his math, four teams with 11 kids per team (six per side on the ice at a time, plus substitutes) means they’ll need to bump their sled count to more than 40. Additionally, his goal is to keep the sport free for participant families, so he has a lot of work yet to do; but he isn’t fretting. In fact, he’s pushing just as hard to raise general awareness about the sport as he is to raise funds.
“If people want to get involved or help, they can come into the rink and help the kids get into their sleds,” Mike says. He certainly won’t turn away donations, though.
Long-term, Mike would like to start a pipeline for these kids to one day compete in the Idaho Special Olympics, though sled hockey isn’t currently included in the Games. But even if that never materializes, he fights hard to ensure the community recognizes his sled hockey team alongside stand-up ice hockey players. His kids wear jerseys featuring the same Eagles name, though Mikayla’s and her teammates’ are emblazoned with a sled-bound eagle logo that Mike and a daughter of a fellow team parent drew up.
At the end of events, organizers regularly strap able-bodied family members and attendees into the sleds, a reminder that once legs are immobilized, the playing ground evens out. In fact, for most sled hockey tournaments, one need not be disabled to participate. But don’t sign up thinking it’ll be easy because you get to sit down; playing sled hockey expends twice as much energy as stand-up hockey, Mike notes. Strong arms are needed to generate momentum while handling the puck.
Mike admits he still hasn’t mastered the art of skating, though he can get up and down the ice without falling now. With his program in its infancy, practices currently focus less on competition and more on fundamentals like learning to skate on the sleds; and soccer balls are often used in place of pucks. But with any implements and at any level, Mike has embraced his role as coach.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “And coaching kids with special needs is even better, because [those without disabilities] take everything for granted.”
“A few [kids trying sled hockey for the first time] come off the ice crying with happiness because they’ve never gotten to play an organized sport before.”
Mike Leavitt hails from CTA’s Boise, ID, office and is currently selling his family’s home to move them about 285 miles west from Idaho Falls to Boise. He’ll then begin exploring further sled hockey opportunities in Idaho’s capital city.
To find out how you can support Mike’s efforts, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.