When you think of elite hockey talent in Nashville, there are some names that should immediately spring to mind—Rinne, Josi, Arvidsson, Woodke, Zayas.
Yes. Woodke and Zayas are just a few of the names worth learning when talking about elite athletes taking the ice in Middle Tennessee. While they may not be playing at Bridgestone in front of standing room only crowds, it may be just a matter of time before Woodke, Zayas, and their remarkable sled hockey team—the Nashville Sled Preds—become another hot hockey story to follow in Smashville. Nashville is an epicenter of developing elite athletes in the sport of sled hockey.
Sled hockey originated at a rehabilitation center in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1960s and was brought to the US in the 1980s. Its introduction to middle Tennessee was a little slow to develop. After a rocky start, the Sled Preds program received their first grant from the Nashville Predators Foundation nearly a decade ago, which allowed them to begin a small youth sled hockey team for kids with disabilities in Middle Tennessee. The following year, the program added an adult team.
When the 2019-2020 season kicks off in September, the Sled Preds will have a flourishing youth/junior team and at least three adult teams—along with supporting a growing program in Knoxville—according to National Wheelcats sled hockey director, Troy Weiss. The Sled Preds program has blossomed into a strong community both for recreational players and as a focal point for developing national-level talent.
The sport of sled hockey (also called para hockey or sledge hockey in Canada and Europe) is very similar to traditional ice hockey, with two major distinctions. In sled hockey, players sit in sleds that are balanced on two small blades. Sled hockey players also use two shorter sticks instead of one like in the NHL. The sticks in sled hockey have small metal picks in one end that players use to propel their sleds across the ice.
Those two differences aside, sled hockey has the same speed, power, and excitement of traditional ice hockey. While the game looks very similar to traditional ice hockey (with the exception of the sled and two sticks), in reality sled hockey uses far more core and upper body strength and requires players to pass and shoot ambidextrously. A few NHL pros have tried sled hockey, and can attest to the unique and high level of physicality involved in playing.
Nashville is definitely making its mark when it comes to sled hockey. While the Sled Preds program has several teams that focus on recreation and community for youth and adults, the program has also become known for developing talent at the highest level. The quality of Sled Preds players developing in the competitive divisions is remarkable.
This year, six players from the team were invited to attend the 2019 Sled Hockey Development Camp held in July in Albany, NY. At the end of the week, several of those Sled Preds players tried out for the US National Team, and forward Joey Woodke received a call a few days later telling him that he had earned a coveted spot on the national team.
It is no easy feat to make the US National team, which is coming off of its 2019 Para Sled Hockey gold medal OT win over Canada.
At the Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea in 2018, the US Team won an unprecedented third straight gold medal, defeating Canada in another OT battle. The USA National Sled Hockey Team is an international force, and making the team takes year-round commitment and training.
Woodke, a Michigan native, served in the US Marine Corp and was injured during a deployment overseas. While recovering from his injuries at Walter Reed, he met two other Marines rehabbing at the same time. When one of those Marines came home to middle Tennessee, he bumped into a Sled Preds player at a Nashville Sounds game, who invited him to take the ice and try the sport. He was immediately hooked, and after that first practice called Woodke and told him he had to come try. Six years ago, Joey Woodke moved to middle Tennessee and began playing for the Sled Preds organization, and their third friend from Walter Reed relocated here, too. The three continue to push each other to play at the highest level.
There is no offseason when pursuing a national title or a spot of the US National Team for Woodke and his teammates. Daily workouts using a ski-erg machine—which mimics the movement players use to propel themselves across the ice—for cardio, weight training, and a whole lot of core work, plus hours spent in the sled in garages–turned–shooting-lanes make up the “offseason” for Woodke and the other elite Sled Preds players.
Woodke also has a strength and conditioning coach who tailors workouts to the specific demands of the sport. As a former military guy, Woodke loves the opportunity to tap into his competitive side again. Earning his spot of the US National Team has required years of hard work, training, and getting back to top Marine Corp shape.
While competing at a high level is a draw for the Sled Preds team, it isn’t the only benefit players of all levels and ages value most about the organization. The teams open up a whole new community to the youth and adults who join.
The camaraderie is evident when talking to Will Zayas, another of the Sled Preds players. Zayas grew up in a military family and followed in those footsteps by joining the Army. After returning from a deployment, Zayas was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. He was told about a variety of adaptive sports while in the hospital, but no one mentioned sled hockey to him until he was approached at Fort Campbell about the opportunity to try the sport.
That was six years ago, and Zayas credits the sport and the Sled Preds community for changing almost every aspect of his life. He is stronger, healthier, and has a community of Sled Preds teammates who work out and train together in Clarksville during the week. The game gets him out of his chair and gives him an opportunity to push himself further. He encourages anyone who is interested in trying sled hockey to just show up and try it.
“Get out and do it, and I promise it will change an aspect of your life,” he says.
While Zayas also competes at the elite level, he stresses that the organization is just as much about building community and offering a great recreational outlet to anyone looking for a new adaptive sport experience.
For those looking to improve their game and compete at a national and international levels, Nashville is the place to be. That commitment to excellence is fast becoming a fundamental aspect of the Sled Preds top-tier team identity. In the early years of the program, recruiting was mostly done by word of mouth and players approaching adults and families when they encountered them out and about in the community.
With the successes of the last few seasons and the number of highly skilled players being developed in the Nashville system, reputation alone is doing much of the recruiting work now. Players who have been on the National and Paralympic team are moving to Nashville to continue to improve their skills in this high-caliber environment.
The new Sled Preds season begins in September. Zayas and Woodke are just a few of the players on the team whose names you should know. Other sled hockey programs and players will be watching to see what the 2019-20 Sled Preds season holds, and for hockey fans it is well be worth keeping an eye on this Middle Tennessee team as well.