GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Griffins aren’t the only elite hockey team based in West Michigan: They share a practice facility with a two-time national championship team called the Sled Wings.

The Sled Wings are an adaptive hockey team for athletes with disabilities that prevent them from playing traditional stand-up hockey.

Tyler Anderson was part of the league’s inception nearly 20 years ago.

“It looks different, being that we are disabled, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey,” he said. “I love hockey. Even before I knew what sled hockey was, watching the (Detroit) Red Wings and the Griffins, and I immediately had an interest because it was hockey. The competitive nature, the friendships and the comradery of people around the country, it’s a lot of fun and I’ve made a lot of good friends doing this.”

Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids offers a handful of adaptive sports like sled hockey, catering to both youth and adult athletes. Anderson plays on the adult team and is an assistant coach for the juniors team.

Dennis Hoekzema is a longtime standing hockey player who found a new passion in coaching goalies for the juniors.

“It’s very, very competitive,” Hoekzema said. “So when we have that success and our coaching staff that is fantastic, it’s able to help our players along for that level of success. And people notice and people want to be a part of that.”

I was one of those people who wanted to be a part of sled hockey, so I joined the team for practice. The first step was getting strapped into a sled. Sleds are usually custom-fitted for each athlete. A helmet, gloves, and a pair of sticks are also part of the standard equipment. While sled hockey is an adaptive sport, the Sled Wings like to welcome able-bodied players, too. Hoekzema, an able-bodied coach, coaches on skates, but he also decided to join me in a sled to teach the basics.

“Helmets, gloves, everything’s the same,” Hoekzema said. “The sticks are the main difference. We’ve got little picks at the end and we use them to dig into the ice and drive forward, turning is a little tricky.”

“That’s one thing is I can find myself on my butt falling over, but it’s leaning over on the sled one way or another that will make you stop completely or do a sharp turn,” Hoekzema said.

Since sled hockey is played with two sticks that are used to steer the sled and move the puck, it’s common for athletes to be ambidextrous.

“It’s a big benefit, whether it’s passing, shooting, or stick handling, or controlling the puck,” Hoekzema said. “Even shooting, we ask a lot of our players to use your right hand and your left hand.”

“Skating around, switching your hands back and forth, there’s a lot going on,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to teach. But in practice, it’s OK to struggle. That’s the time to learn.”

I definitely struggled.

Make no mistake, sled hockey is just a violent and physical as the traditional standup version. Checking and penalties are all still a part of the game.

“As far as hockey goes, it’s the same as regular hockey, we check people into the wall, and people are running into each other,” Anderson said. “We leave our wheelchairs off the ice, and everything else doesn’t matter while you’re out here playing and practicing and having fun with your friends. disabilities aren’t everything, everything else doesn’t matter, it’s an even playing field, and it gets us involved in something.”