|Zeljko Sreckovic competes during a recent Wheelchair Hockey League game. The WCHL allows players with a wide variety of disabilities to play hockey. The Oakland Press - Dave Pemberton|
The WCHL is like any other competitive hockey league.
There is rivalries, big goals, huge saves, spectacular wins and tough losses.
The league has a 12-game season and playoffs, an all-star game, a travel team, a database of league statistics which includes career and season leaders, an awards banquet and a championship trophy.
As league commissioner Chris Lemieux puts it, they try to make the WCHL as close to the NHL as possible.
The only major difference between the WCHL and other hockey leagues is all the competitors are in wheelchairs. WCHL stands for Wheelchair Hockey League.
The league began in 1995 and had just six players or as Lemieux refers to them as “The Original Six.” The league has since grown to a four-team league with more than 40 players.
The WCHL features both male and female players ranging from seven years old to more than 60 years old. The players have a wide variety of disabilities including Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Arthrogryposis and Osteogensis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones).
“I love the sport of hockey itself, it is a real passion of mine,” WCHL veteran Zeljko Sreckovic said. “I love everything about the game. Being disabled, I thought I was only going to be able to watch the game on TV. But then I found power hockey and that all changed.
“Power hockey allows me to participate in the sport I love. All the shooting, passing, blocking, speed, strategy and hitting of real hockey, but instead of skates, I’m in my power chair and instead of ice, it’s a gym floor.
“The WCHL has become a second family to me,” Sreckovic added. “I have made many new friends and bonds over the years that will never be broken. We play against each other, all out for 60 minutes. But then, after the game we hang out like family and friends. We are like a community and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
The WCHL gives players who never thought they could play a competitive sport a chance to compete and be part of a team and all the benefits that come from being part of a team.
|Chris Lemieux is the commissioner of the WCHL and a long time player.The Oakland Press - Dave Pemberton|
WCHL also gives players a chance to interact with people who they can better relate to and build relationships with people they may have never met without hockey.
“When I took this league over I realized it was a lot bigger than hockey,” Lemieux said. “This league allows people to meet each other, to socialize. We almost built a community of people.
“You see guys playing in our league and they’re on oxygen tanks or they have a trach in their throat. Some of our guys they’re not strong enough to feed themselves or comb their own hair, but because they can drive a wheelchair they can play hockey. They can play and be a part of the social aspect of it.”
The WCHL gives the younger players a chance to meet and learn from the older players and give the older players a chance to be a leader and a mentor.
Lemieux still fondly recalls a group that he learned from when he was young and now he’s passing on his knowledge to younger players.
The parents also get a chance to interact during the games and life long bonds and friendships are formed through the game of hockey.
“It’s great because during the games the parents can talk and they can relate to each other, help each other out,” Lemieux said. “The same with the players. It allows the younger players to look up to the older guys and also allows the older guys to kind of learn how to become a leader, a mentor and set an example for the younger guys. It’s more than just hockey. We’re a community of people.
“This is our 16th season so I’ve known some of these guys a long, long time and I’m so grateful for that. When you have a disability and you’re in high school and even college, you’re with everyone and you’re kind of part of the mainstream. Then as you get older, like I’m 32 ... where all of our friends have kind of gone off, they’re working, they’re getting married, they’re having kids and we’re stuck at home with our parents, and not through any fault of our own. I work and stuff. But it gets lonely. It gets kind of frustrating to see everyone else kind of pass you by. But having hockey gives us something to look forward to.
“We’ve had guys who have been put in the hospital, but literally the day they’ve come out of the hospital they’ve been here at hockey because they miss it so much and they want to just come play. It literally gets them through those bad times. That’s a huge benefit of this league that a lot of people don’t really see.”
The WCHL also allows players a chance to be themselves without having to worry about people staring at them, asking questions or making them uncomfortable.
“I don’t think people understand, everywhere we go, we’re going to get stared at just because we’re in a chair, we’re different,” Lemieux said. “It’s like a natural reaction. You see something different, you’re just going to look. A lot of times it is kind of hard on us going everywhere and feeling out of place. But you come here you don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to explain why a guy’s on oxygen or why a guy has a trach in his throat or why someone’s been sick in the hospital for the past month. You don’t have to explain that here because everyone’s in the same boat.
“It’s easier on the player and on the parent. You can come here and just kind of be yourself. You don’t have to kind of look over your shoulder for someone to be staring at you or be asking stupid questions. You can just come here be yourself and have fun, relax and play hockey. That’s a really big part of it because some of our players are different for the outside person. As soon as I enter these doors I have a big weight off my shoulders. I can just be myself. That’s really comforting.”
Players in the WCHL come from all over including Troy, Clarkston, Sterling Heights, Canton, Livonia, Dearborn, Emmet, Lapeer and even Windsor, Ontario.
The WCHL also features a travel team called the Michigan Mustangs, which is basically an all-star team that competes in major tournaments.
The Mustangs have won a gold (2011) and a silver (2012) in the United States Powerhockey Cup and won two silvers (2010 and 2012) in the North American Powerhockey Cup. The U.S. and North American championships are held on alternating years.
The Mustangs are currently raising money to compete at the 2014 North American championships.
Two years ago, the Mustangs came close to winning the North American championship only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. The Mustangs trailed 5-0 early, but railed to tie the game at eight with one second left only to have the game-tying goal disallowed due to a high-sticking penalty.
“It was totally heart breaking because the momentum shifted,” Lemieux said. “We should have won, but it just wasn’t meant to be. We need redemption.”
The Mustangs have set up a fund on gofundme.com in attempt to help raise money to go to the tournament. Many of the players rely on disability, SSI or SSDI as their primary source of income and traveling to the tournaments can be costly, but the players are determined to find a way to get there and compete.
“This tournament always means a lot to me and my teammates,” Sreckovic said. “It’s the biggest competition there is right now in our sport. With teams from Canada and the United States involved in this big tournament. The best of the best. We’ve always came in second, it’s time to prove we can be No. 1.”
Check out a photo gallery from recent WCHL action.