Justin Reitzel is full of determination. You can see it in his eyes. It drives him and pushes him and it gets him to do things he never thought he would be able to do, including getting out on the ice to play hockey. Reitzel always dreamed of playing hockey, but he was never able to stand and stay balanced on skates. Hockey was always in Reitzel: it just took a while to come out. Reitzel was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that can impede brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking. That has not slowed him down, however, as the 18-year-old has been playing sledge hockey for the last five years.
Sledge hockey is a variation on the sport that’s a perfect fit for him, allowing participants who have physical disabilities the chance to play the game of ice hockey. It is currently one of the most popular sports in the Paralympic Games. The rules are essentially the same to regular ice hockey, with one exception: sledge hockey has a teeing-charging rule that does not allow any opponent to use any part of the front radius of the sled to hit other players. “It can be a bit rough out there sometimes, but that is all a part of the sport and why I like it,” said Reitzel.”] Fitted in a sled, each player is given two sticks. Those sticks have a blade curved at one end in a manner similar to regular ice hockey, and are generally half the regular length. There are six to eight metal teeth at the opposite end of the blade for maneuvering and propulsion. Movement is achieved by using the metal teeth as a means to grip the ice and push oneself forward.
Living in St. Clements, Reitzel attends St. David’s in Waterloo and plays for the KW Sidewinders sledge hockey team, which has gone undefeated this season and will be starting their playoff run next week. “I work to do the best I can and give the sport everything I’ve got,” said Reitzel. “It is a lot of fun being able to play hockey and it has helped me with my condition.”
Reitzel’s turn on the ice has been a family event in every sense. Along with the support of his parents, Reitzel’s brother Bradley skates with the team, helping to push older players in their sleds that need the extra support. Reitzel’s progress has got to the point where it has even begun to surprise his family.
“We were quite impressed with his ability and he has come along so well over the last few years and it is great to see him so happy playing hockey. He is excited anytime he goes on the ice,” said Reitzel’s mother, Catherine. “He does such an awesome job every time he plays.”
Last month Reitzel was selected to play centre forward on the Region 3 West Sledge hockey team for the 2012 Ontario ParaSport Winter Games in Huntsville. The team would go on to finish with the bronze medal. “It was such a treat to see him play in the Games,” said Catherine. “They were treated like royalty and spent the whole weekend as a team – it was a real growing experience for him.” Three other KW Sidewinders were also part of the team, and Reitzel admitted it helped having familiar faces on the ice to calm the nerves before game time.
“It’s because of his work and his determination that he is where he is,” said Catherine. “Whatever strength he needs, he works at it and works at it. I’m very proud of everything that he has accomplished on the ice.” Reitzel has some big plans for the future, including continuing on with his sledge hockey and perhaps joining the national team and participating in the Paralympics, but he also hopes to become a professional wrestler as he is a big fan of the WWE.
“I know if you work hard enough you can achieve anything,” he said. “You just have to have goals.”