Hockey...on Wheels? An International, Inclusive Sport
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
When you hear the word "hockey," many thoughts likely come to mind. it could be positive memories of the winter Olympics or your favorite professional team. Or it might send a shiver down your spine thinking about the cold icy playing surface. For others, it inspires a joyful visual of youth outside playing hockey on frozen lakes or patches of water.
While the weather isn't conducive in all places for outdoor hockey, it is in many parts of Canada, a country that has had an enormous impact on the growth of the modern-day game. It's their national sport, after all.
Of course, not all hockey is played on ice or with skates. A newer version of the game, volt hockey, has wheels, is played on a gym floor and caters to the inclusion of those with the most severe disabilities, putting everyone on a level playing field.
Still, what makes this story unique isn't solely related to volt hockey, it's the little bit of magic which unfolded earlier this year for INCIGHT, an organization empowering people with disabilities, and Brandon, a small town in Canda's Manitoba province. Such is the backdrop for the inspiration, passion, hard work and serendipity of an international partnership—a journey which would introduce INCIGHT to Variety Children's Charity of Ontario and Winnipeg as well as Chad Wallin and his family, the ultimate outcome being making dreams come true for youth with disabilities.
Adaptive sports began after WWII as a means to rehabilitate injured and paralyzed war veterans. Most of the adaptive sports developed in the decades since require a degree of physical strength to participate. Volt hockey, founded in the 1990s in Denmark, is a different type of adaptive sport. It isn't sled hockey or quad rugby, nor is it wheelchair basketball or sit-skiing. Rather, this sport is for the most severely mobility-impaired who are otherwise left out of adaptive sports and recreation.
It has been described by some as IKEA meets a battery-operated go-kart. Volt hockey is a team sport for youth who experience fairly severe physical disabilities such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia, spinal cord injuries, osteoporosis and
As a wheelchair user myself, the carts feel amazing the first time you get into them. Fast. Sleek. Sporty. Fun. These wooden carts open up a whole new world for wheelchair users. While being a wheelchair user is not a prerequisite, volt hockey chairs are designed specifically for those who have limited upper and lower body
Unlike typical joystick-operated chairs, volt hockey chairs are specially-designed indoor-use chairs which are low to the ground, full of speed and highly adaptable. A plastic hockey stick mounted on the front, along with a joystick mounted on the chair’s side, allows the athlete to control a ball and guide it to the goal. Oh, and did we tell you? The chairs can reach speeds of up to 10 mph!
The chairs are a vehicle unlike any other. Customizable to each individual’s condition, the volt player moves the joystick to turn the cart which in turn propels the ball.
Our team was originally introduced to volt hockey by an INCIGHT donor who had a connection to the Danish sport. We were inspired by the neat way the sport could break down societal stigma and barriers to level the playing field for youth with disabilities and their peers. We wanted to be the group to bring this sport to the US and help facilitate its distribution across the country. We thought, “The sport is so cutting-edge. Why not us?”
In reality, we were a bit ahead of our time. Only a portion of the United States is as hockey-crazed as Europe and Canada, and INCIGHT struggled to gain traction with the sport pre-pandemic. Then, like so many things, the COVID pandemic completely changed the trajectory of the organization. Our team developed a new vision, mission and strategic direction which unfortunately didn’t include the volt hockey chairs. We realized our work needed to focus more broadly on changing hearts and minds and leveling the playing field at a higher societal level.
We were thrilled when serendipity provided a path forward to get the chairs back into use in a new, hockey–loving town where lives can continue to be changed. Thanks to the financial generosity of the Johnson Charitable Trust and an introduction to Variety Children's Charity of Ontario, INCIGHT was able to facilitate a new chapter for the chairs.
Variety Charities in Canada are nonprofit affiliates of the global organization Variety International, founded in the 1940s in the United States. The Ontario and Winnipeg chapters raise funds to provide subsidized programming to children, adults and youth who are living with disabilities, and the programs they generally offer are all sports-focused.
“There was nothing like this [volt hockey] for children who want to play an accessible form of sport, and that's a big part of what Variety does,” said Audrey Bouman, manager of Sport Marketing & Development at Variety Ontario. “We're a hockey nation. We need to have this accessible type of hockey here, and that is when it grew in Ontario to where we are today.”
While INCIGHT explored new homes for the chairs, Chad Wallin, a local resident and business owner in Brandon, was looking for sport opportunities for his 13 year old son Zander. Born with Cerebral Palsy, and a twin, Zander’s first love is hockey.
“He is the hugest hockey fan I think that there is,” said the older Wallin, “and he's always wanted to skate.”
Zander begged his parents to allow him to somehow participate in the sport. Chad wasn’t about to let Zander’s physical challenges keep him from playing the sport he loves.
“We ended up building kind of a hillbilly rink out in the front yard of our place, so that we could try and get Zander to skate,” said Wallin, “It was the pandemic and the only way the kids could play was on their own hockey rink. It was an eyesore for our neighbors.”
At first it was just Zander, his brother and a couple of buddies playing around on the rink. Then one day, with the help of a family friend, who also happened to be the equipment manager of Brandon’s Western Hockey League team, they had an idea to fashion some skates out of Zander’s winter boots with a couple double blades.
At first, the Wallins made a Facebook post for their friends, “And then from there it went a little bit viral and there were people from all over the world reaching out to us, just saying, ‘Hey, this is super neat. We'd love to do this for our child.” said Wallin.
It also led to a friendship with a family from Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. “We don't have any of these programs accessible for kids here,” said Wallin. “So I just did a little bit of fact-finding, had some conversations with this family, and they put me in touch with Variety [in Ontario].”
After learning about volt hockey, Chad became committed to bringing this program to Brandon. “We were in the right place at the right time, and it looks like things happen for a
reason,” said Wallin. “It was just kinda luck that we stumbled into this. And Michelle [Chad’s wife] and I said, ‘If we don’t do this, who will?”
The sport of volt hockey originally launched in Ontario, Canada in 2016. It was brought to Canada by the Danish consulate during a visit with some of the royal family. They called it Denmark's gift to Canada as a country of fellow hockey-lovers.
It would appear easy for the largest Canadian province of Ontario to gain traction with volt hockey. There are five locations right now in the Ontario province with volt teams, along with another two coming this fall. This is great, but where does it leave new, smaller sites such as Brandon, Manitoba, with a population of only 50,000?
“That's why we hope to take the volt program into those little towns...so that all those smaller hockey communities have the opportunity to play,” said Bouman. “A really big thing that a lot of these accessible sports are lacking is their accessibility to people. It's not easy for them to find and get access to them, and that also includes the cost of running these programs.”
Why is this sport important? Why does it deserve to grow and reach youth worldwide? Chad sums it up nicely. “I get a little emotional sometimes, but he's [Zander] always relegated to the sidelines watching his brother or buddies. So this is good for him to be a player, not just a fan.”
It was bittersweet for INCIGHT to see the chairs leave us, but volt is the sport which binds. In late July of 2022, INCIGHT’s chairs shipped out in six individual shipping crates from Portland, Oregon to Brandon, Manitoba. Arriving a month later, the chairs have been redesigned with a special flare only the community of Brandon could provide, painted black and yellow.
What’s ahead for the Wallins and the city of Brandon for volt? “Our main goal is to grow the program, so that we have more chairs, and we have the funding to get more equipment,” said Wallin. “Our goal is to get as many kids with their bums in those seats as possible. And to have as much fun, but also just to feel a part of something, part of a team.”
This journey may very well be INCIGHT’s last hoorah in the world of adaptive sports. We will, however, forever be an admirer and supporter of volt hockey and its future growth.
We were glad to have a part in this chapter of volt hockey. We saw this sport as leveling the playing field and bringing people together for fun in sport. It also brought us together with people in Canada, and we hope that relationship will continue to grow. Finally, we look forward to seeing the sport take the US by storm in the not-too-distant future.