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Sled Wing Tyler Anderson tries to score against Griffin Francis Pare during last year's Griffins-Sled Wings game
On Tuesday night, the Griffins and the Grand Rapids Sled Wings, an organization of sled hockey players with lower-limb affected disabilities, meet at Griff's IceHouse at Belknap Park to play their 8th annual sled hockey game. It's a tradition both the Griffins and the Sled Wings have come to love.
"The Griffins game is definitely the highlight of our season," said Jodie Anderson, who coordinates both the Sled Wings' adult and junior teams.
The Sled Wings junior team, which began in 2001 as the first junior-level sled hockey team in Michigan, is a partnership between the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital; the adult Sled Wings, which began three years ago, is sponsored by Mary Free Bed.
Both the junior and adult Sled Wings travel to various states to play in sled hockey tournaments. The junior Sled Wings claimed titles in the 2009 and 2012 National Disabled Hockey Championships.
The Sled Wings have also produced individual standouts such as Tyler Anderson and Chris Melton, who each earned spots on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Anderson, 22, is a longtime Sled Wings player who is training to qualify for the 2014 Paralympics. Like many other Sled Wings players, he has spina bifida. He enjoys the annual game but also considers the Griffins' perspective as neophytes to sled hockey.
"For them hockey is everything," said Anderson. "To play a different style is challenging for them."
Challenging indeed. So challenging, in fact, that after the Sled Wings defeated the Griffins 11-1 in 2011, event organizers decided to end the annual mismatch of the two teams facing head to head in favor of a format that pits two mixed Sled Wings-Griffins teams against each other.
Sled hockey is played on sleds that are each made of a metal frame with seat, with two skate blades beneath. Players use special small hockey sticks both to propel themselves along on the ice and to shoot and pass the puck.
Second-year Griffins forward Landon Ferraro acknowledged how difficult sled hockey is even for professional hockey players.
"It's harder than it looks," said Ferraro, recalling last year's game. "I spent more time on my back than on my blades."
But his troubles on the ice won't keep Ferraro from enjoying himself Tuesday.
"It's a lot of fun," he said with a smile.
Ferraro's sentiment is shared by his teammates. Lynn Rabaut, director of the Griffins Youth Foundation, said that the annual game is probably the Griffins' favorite community event.
"It's the one that the guys talk about, that they remember," she said. "It's one of the only events that the new Griffins players hear about right away."
One new Griffin who anticipates trying out sled hockey Tuesday is not a player, but first-year head coach Jeff Blashill.
"It'll be my first experience with it," Blashill said. "I'm a slow learner, so maybe it'll take me awhile."
Blashill's situation differs from that of Griffins forward Francis Pare, who will be playing in his fifth Griffins-Sled Wings game. Pare has many fond memories of playing with and against the Sled Wings.
"It's great to see their passion and their working hard," he said. "They just want to show us that they're so much better than us."
Although Pare is the second-leading goal scorer in Griffins history, he uses the annual game as his opportunity to play a non-scoring position.
"The last three or four years, I've been the best goalie out there," said Pare, who is known for his mischievous antics.
"I'm not afraid of their shots," he said firmly as a grin betrayed his mock-serious demeanor.
Fourth-year Griffins goalie Jordan Pearce is happy to switch positions with Pare on Tuesday.
"I prefer to play as a forward because I spend enough time in the net," Pearce said. "I want to score some goals instead of being scored on."
The game begins at 7:00 p.m., but fans are encouraged to arrive at 6:00 for a Griffins autograph session and the chance to skate on a sled. Tickets are $5 for individuals and $20 for families. Pre-game sled rental is $1. Proceeds benefit the Sled Wings.
To view a video recap of last year's event, click here.
David Urban is an English professor at Calvin College. Learn more about him at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engl/faculty/urban/
Reports on: Human interest stories