The Mission of Sled Hockey Vets: Heal
You’d be surprised what a sled can do.
When Marc Fountain and Ian Ramsdell first settled their broken bodies into the buckets of ice hockey sleds, they were unsteady. Sitting a few inches above the ice, the men had to learn to maneuver the metal sleds, which sit on top of slim blades, and propel themselves using two shortened, angled sticks.
However, it didn’t take long for Fountain and Ramsdell, both student-veterans, to find their balance. And then they found themselves.
Fountain, 49, and Ramsdell, 35, are mainstays of the university’s Student Veterans' Organization — Fountain as president, Ramsdell as treasurer. Both spent youthful hours playing pond hockey in Lynn, where they grew up more than a decade apart. Now the two churn up the ice with the New England Warriors sled hockey team, a group of disabled players. In April, the team won the Adult Sled C national championship at the USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival in Fraser, Mich. They are currently raising funds to attend the 2017 festival in San Jose, Calif.
On Nov. 4, they were among the student-veterans who dropped the puck before the River Hawks men’s hockey game at the Tsongas Center. Between periods, they demonstrated sled hockey. The crowd loved it, especially when the agile Ramsdell scored a goal.
“When I scored and the crowd cheered it was a great experience,” Ramsdell says. Better still were all the kids who approached the players after the game and told them how “awesome” it was.
Involvement with the Warriors has helped both Ramsdell and Fountain adjust to life as student-veterans. Nine of 13 players on the team are veterans and their wounds are not always visible. Ramsdell’s pain and stress seem to disappear when he settles into his ice hockey sled, says his wife Nichole.
“It’s not just a team,” she says. “This is about a family.”
Fountain, a senior psychology major with a minor in disability studies, spent 23 years in the military. He made it through two bouts of testicular cancer, but when he had surgery to repair damaged hips, they found more tumors.
Initially joining the Air Force as a dog handler in 1986, he signed up for the Army Reserve 12 years later and became a drill sergeant. The cancer, he says, was from exposure to the chemicals he handled to treat the dogs for fleas and ticks.
“Basically, we were exposed to Agent Orange,” he says.
Over nearly two years, his weight plummeted from 215 to 132 pounds. He was confined to a bed, then a wheelchair.
“I went from going 100 miles per hour to doing nothing,” Fountain says. “I felt like I was on my death bed.”
He was medically retired from the service the day he began classes at UMass Lowell in September 2013.
Recovery has been slow. He no longer uses a wheelchair, though he lives with pain.
“I have good and bad days. The biggest thing has been adjusting from being so physically active. You adapt and find things to do and enjoy,” Fountain says.
Last year, when Ramsdell mentioned ice hockey, it sparked good memories for Fountain.
“I’m not able to play stand-up hockey any more, but when Ian got me on the sled, it was the first time I’d played hockey in seven years. That was my introduction to the New England Warriors, and it’s a great way to get back to doing something I love while being with veterans, experiencing that camaraderie.”
The team includes players from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
“Everybody gives everybody else a lift-up,” Fountain says.
Ramsdell, 35, learned of sled hockey from a pal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who dragged him to a session. By the end, “you just about had to drag me off the ice,” he recalled.
Ramsdell joined the Navy out of high school in 1999, hoping to become an elite SEAL. But that dream ended during training when he dislocated a shoulder. He worked as a naval police officer and was injured during a tour of duty in Iraq.
Exacerbated by 12-hour sessions on his feet during gate duty, his pain worsened, as did his post-traumatic stress disorder.
He self-medicated with alcohol.
“My pain level was through the roof,” he says. “I wondered, would it be like this for the rest of my life?”
“When he got to Walter Reed, he was completely shut down,” says his wife. “And then when he started sled hockey, you started to see his old self come out. You see the camaraderie these folks have. They are in a unit again.”
Sometimes they win, and sometimes they don’t.
The final score doesn’t matter that much to Fountain.
“We know it’s not the same as stand-up hockey,” he says. “It’s a different game. But we’re different players.”
Ramsdell has a goal. He wants to play the nationally ranked Division I River Hawks men’s hockey team in sled hockey. He’s confident of the Warriors’ ability to compete.
“We’d give ’em a good run,” he says.