An exciting and physical hockey game took place in Nashville on February 8, ending in a shootout after a third-period comeback. That Saturday afternoon game was one of the fastest, most intense hockey games played this season, but it wasn’t the Nashville Predators playing the Edmonton Oilers at Bridgestone Arena. It was the Nashville Sled Preds Tier 1 sled hockey team playing the Warrior Avs, another elite adult sled hockey team from Colorado, at the MWSHL Weekend at Ford Ice Center in Antioch.
Nashville is home to the Nashville Sled Preds, a sled hockey program that is burgeoning into a sport that appeals not only to those in the disability community, but to sports fans who are interested in watching top-level action. While Nashville is fortunate to have the Predators in the NHL, the Tier 1 Sled Preds are a top-level hockey team ready to draw crowds who are looking for another thrilling live sports experience.
How It Started
Sled hockey’s origins can be traced back to a rehabilitation facility in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1960s. The sport spread across Europe and Canada, but it took nearly two decades for sled hockey to gain a foothold in the United States. Sled hockey shares many of the same rules as traditional stand-up hockey with two major equipment differences. In sled hockey, the players sit in specially made sleds resting on blades. Instead of using one long hockey stick, sled hockey players play with two smaller hockey sticks that have ice picks at the end. These sticks are used to propel the sleds across the ice and to control and shoot the puck.
Nashville’s Sled Preds program began nearly a dozen years ago with a small youth sled hockey program. In the early years, youth players often combined with other sled hockey programs to form a large enough contingent for tournament play. With grants from the Nashville Predators Foundation and a growing interest in the sport, what was once a small youth sled hockey program has grown into a program supporting youth and adult sled hockey teams at various competitive levels (or tiers), and now partners with other cities to grow the sport.
Recreation, Community, Opportunity
The Jr Sled Preds and Sled Preds youth teams provide an opportunity for children with physical disabilities to try a sport traditionally known for contact and speed. With players ranging from ages 5 through 17, these levels focus on learning the rules, developing skills, and experiencing the fun of sled hockey. The Jr. Sled Preds and youth programs provide a strong community not only for the players but also for parents who are looking for support and community with other special needs parents off the ice as well.
“With hockey in general, the community is awesome,” says Sled Preds Tier 1 coach Keith Grooms. “But the way people go out of their way to help in this specific hockey community is another level.”
There are lessons taught that have nothing to do with sports when coaching youth in traditional stand-up hockey. This may be even more true for the Sled Preds. Sled hockey players with disabilities gain a growing sense of independence. The program also allows parents a chance to step back as their children gain sports skills and confidence on the ice with other coaches and adults.
While the program offers a valuable recreational outlet, it is also an opportunity to identify and develop young talent interested in competing at a more elite level in sled hockey. Youth players showing enthusiasm and promise with the sport can attend USA Hockey’s development camps and can be brought up to play at the more competitive levels.
Playing against higher-level teams has been a key to growing the adult Nashville Sled Preds’ skills and reputation nationally. With Coach Grooms and a core group of committed and emerging talent, the adult team began competing in tournaments against more experienced, higher-tiered teams.
Coach Grooms admits that they lost a lot, but the team was happy to see improvement and eventually earn their spot at the Tier 1 elite level. Their tenacious play and determination to improve drew serious sled hockey players from other parts of the country who wanted to play with Nashville’s team. Last year the Tier 1 Sled Preds joined the Midwest Sled Hockey League, the premier sled hockey league for club hockey, and over February 7-9 Nashville hosted an MWSHL tournament at Ford Ice Center Antioch.
The perception that this adaptive sport is a slower and gentler version of stand-up hockey is easy dispelled after watching just one game.
“It is not slow. It is not sweet. It is not cute. It is badass. It is awesome. It is physical,“ says Grooms.
He is right. The speed and physicality of the game between the Sled Preds and the Warrior Avs match the action seen in any NHL game. It isn’t surprising. Most of the Sled Preds Tier 1 players are professional athletes training full-time for hard-fought positions on the US National team and eventually the US Paralympic team. Early in the season the team was on the ice four times a week training, and off the ice these athletes work with personal trainers and nutritionists to improve every aspect of their game.
Spotlight: Coach Keith Grooms
Keith Grooms spent much of his childhood in Alaska, where stand-up hockey is the sport of choice. After attending his first league game with his dad at age four, Grooms immediately asked to play. Hockey became a passion throughout his childhood in Alaska, and he carried that passion with him to Nashville when his family moved here when he was 15. Here he played U-18 hockey and began refereeing youth games. Grooms continued pursuing a future in hockey attending junior tryouts, where, in one unfortunate incident, the self-confessed enforcer engaged in a fight that injured his eye and would eventually change the trajectory of his hockey future.
After that injury, Grooms began focusing on refereeing. He attended camps and refereeing clinics, and he spent two years as a linesman in the Central Hockey League (now the ECHL). When he wasn’t hired on for a third season, Grooms stepped back from hockey and joined the Marine Corps. Although he didn’t know it at the time, Grooms’ military service would prove to be a valuable connection in the sled hockey world.
Grooms’s hiatus from the hockey community ended when he began coaching youth hockey. His introduction to sled hockey happened when he wandered over to watch a youth Sled Preds practice. Grooms began volunteering first as a pusher (a volunteer who pushes sled hockey players who don’t have the strength yet to propel themselves around the rink) and then as a youth sled hockey coach.
As he spent more time at the rink. Grooms struck up conversation with a group of adult sled hockey players. With time in the Marine Corps and an interest in sled hockey in common, Grooms began working with some of the guys on improving their hockey skills.
In 2015, Grooms officially became the adult Sled Preds coach. Seeing the commitment of the players to improve and compete, Grooms worked hard to modify his stand-up hockey knowledge and experience to elite-level sled hockey. That meant spending warm-ups and drills in a sled with the team at the beginning of practices. While his sled speed may not be equal to the Tier 1 team, his passion for the sport is. Grooms has traveled to speak to groups interested in starting and growing sled hockey in other parts of the country while he continues to promote the sport here in Nashville.
The Tier 1 players aren’t the only ones with Olympic aspirations. Grooms, who spent years playing hockey and refereeing at the highest levels, has found a passion for coaching sled hockey. He has worked as an on-ice coach at US Development Camp, and he hopes one day to use his knowledge and experience rinkside at the Olympics. It isn’t a stretch to think that the Nashville Sled Preds could be well-represented in Beijing in 2022 or Milan/Cortina d’Ampezzo in 2026.
Between now and those international competitions, the goal is to continue to grow the sport of sled hockey here in Nashville. This emerging sports team is taking a similar trajectory as the Predators in the early days. While many people may not know about sled hockey and the elite team here in Nashville yet, it often takes just one sled hockey game to convert the curious into fans. First time crowds are often surprised at the intensity of sled hockey at the Tier 1 level and gain an appreciation and knowledge of the sport quickly.
This growth of sled hockey isn’t unique to Nashville. The sport is quickly growing in all parts of the country. USA Hockey hosts a Disabled Hockey Festival each year for all disciplines of disabled hockey (deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired, standing/amputee, special hockey, warrior, sled hockey) and, because of its popularity, has had to expand the Festival to include one weekend dedicated strictly to sled hockey. Sled hockey players from all across the United States will descend on Pittsburgh, PA April 2-5 to participate in games for athletes of all abilities to compete on a national level.
The Tier 1 Sled Preds team and Coach Grooms will be in Pittsburgh to compete as well. If the game on February 8 is any indication, the Festival may be worth a trip for future fans.
For Nashvillians who want to check out sled hockey a little closer to home, the Nashville Sled Preds are hosting sled hockey tournaments at both Ford Ice Centers on March 6-8 (for lower and mid-tier teams in Bellevue) and April 24-26 (for Jr Sled Preds in Antioch). Sled hockey is a sport the city will be seeing and hearing much more about as the Sled Preds program continues its growth and success.