Dwayne Pingston thought his sled hockey career had come to an end when he moved from Michigan to the Lowcountry six years ago.
Pingston, 55, had left all of his sled hockey gear back in the Midwest when he moved to Beaufort in 2012. He had given up hope of getting back on the ice until he stumbled across the Charleston Warriors Sled Hockey team’s Facebook page last summer.
He immediately called his former team and had them ship his gear to the Lowcountry. A few weeks later, Pingston was back on the ice at the Carolina Ice Palace playing the game he's loved since his accident 35 years ago.
“I told them to get my gear back down here, I’m playing hockey again,” Pingston said. “I couldn’t believe it, I thought my hockey days were over, so this has been great to get back on the ice.”
Pingston and his fellow Charleston Warrior teammates took to the ice at the North Charleston Coliseum on Saturday night in an exhibition game during the first intermission of the South Carolina Stingrays game against Orlando Solar Bears on the club’s annual Pack the House/Military Appreciation Night that drew a crowd of 9,676.
The Solar Bears beat the Stingrays 7-4.
Sled hockey began in Sweden in the 1960s and is a sport that was designed to allow participants who have a physical disability to play the game of ice hockey. Participants are secured into a sled, which has two blades, so the puck can move underneath it, and move around the ice using their sticks. The rules for sled hockey are basically the same as stand-up hockey.
The Stingrays held a postgame jersey auction to raise money for the Charleston Warriors Sled team.
Sled hockey has been around the United States for decades. The first veterans sled hockey club was formed in Washington more than a decade ago and now has seven affiliations nationwide. The Charleston Warriors Sled Hockey team formed less than a year ago with the help of team captain Marc Fountain, a Boston native who served in the Air Force for six years and as a member of the Army reserves for another 16 years.
Fountain grew up playing stand-up hockey, but injuries forced him to take up sled hockey.
“My legs and my body wouldn’t work with me anymore so I could play stand up,” Fountain said “When I lived in Maine, I found a group of veterans that already had a sled hockey team and started playing. It was my way of getting back into the sport.”
When Fountain moved to the Lowcountry to pursue a master’s degree, he got the idea of starting a sled hockey club.
“I talked to enough veterans and I thought it had a good chance to survive,” Fountain said.
The club is a non-profit organization and players with no disabilities do play for the team. David Wolter, who was in the Navy and now works for Boeing, is one of the volunteers that plays with the sled team and plays in a local men's league at the Carolina Ice Palace.
“I just wanted to give something back to the veterans,” said Wolter, who was a nuclear technician at the weapons station while he was in the Navy. “I love any kind of hockey, stand-up or sled, and love being around the guys.”
Pingston is happy to make the hour drive up from Beaufort to get back on the ice. Pingston, who played football, baseball and wrestled growing up, is one of the non-veterans on the team.
“I’ve been in this chair for 35 years and a lot of people think the competitive spirit is dead, but it’s not,” Pingston said. “When you are sitting in the chair, people only see the chair. When you’re on the ice, all they see is someone they want to get the puck from, somebody they want to hit, and someone they want to beat. I’m a normal dude on the ice. I’m out there doing my thing. It’s just as competitive as stand-up hockey. We get just as upset when we lose and just as upset when we get hit. And we feel the same joy when we score a goal.”
Charlie Carlisle, 53, is a recent convert to the sport. He grew up in rural North Carolina and has been on the ice only a half-dozen times.
“I’m just a country boy, learning how to play, but I love it,” said Carlisle, who lost the use of his legs when he was 29. “I like the physical play. All the competition and it’s a great group of guys and I love being around other vets.”
Fountain is hoping the club will grow with more exhibition games like Saturday night in front of nearly 10,000 people.
“It was fantastic being out there in front of that many people,” Fountain said. “It helps spread the word. Anybody that says hockey isn’t alive and well in the South hasn’t been to a game here. We can’t thank the Stingrays enough. We get a lot of support from the Stingrays and the Ice Palace and the Charleston youth hockey."
People interesting making donations and volunteering can go to their Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/warriorscharleston.