It’s early morning on a Saturday and the players are putting on their gear in the locker room at Kettler Capitals Iceplex – the same ice rink where the Washington Capitals practice. They pull on their hockey sweaters, strap on their pads and get ready to hit the ice. The D.C. Sled Sharks are ready to practice.

They’re typical kids as they chat about their summer, their favorite players and the doughnuts one of the parents has brought in for later. Yes, hockey season is here for the Sled Sharks. It’s a fresh sheet of ice as the players settle into their adapted sleds and glide onto the ice. Welcome to practice for D.C.’s only sled hockey team for kids.

Sled hockey, an adapted version of traditional hockey where players sit down in sleds to play, is one of a growing number of adapted sports for kids in the area. The team is sponsored by MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. “Sled hockey is for anybody who has a physical disability; usually a lower limb extremity,” says Joan P. Joyce, the Director of Therapeutic Recreation and Community Outreach at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. “I’m also the manager of the Sled Sharks. The parents tease me and call me the owner.”

The focus of the team is on what the kids can do on the ice instead of what they can’t do. “We have kids with spina bifida, cerebral palsey, arthro-gryposis and any other number of issues,” Joyce says. “And they are playing to win and they are really watching their stats.”

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the competitive spirit these kids have. Former Sled Shark and current sophomore at Millersville University, Sean Carlson was even selected for the invitation-only junior camp for the Paralympic National Team. Carlson comes to practices to help out when he is in town, and his speed and skill on the ice are immediately evident. His enthusiasm for the game is contagious. “I just love to play,” he says.

The team has children from ages 4 to 18 and the kids really work hard. They come off the ice sweaty and smiling ear to ear.

“That was awesome!” says Griffin Cloyd, a 10-year-old attending his first Shark’s practice. “I’m so psyched. I love sports and it’s awesome that I get to play.”

One of the coaches, Brian Dutton, agrees. “We see all kinds of kids with differences in age, personality, race and gender. And they all have one thing in common; they love to play the game.”

There are eight teams in the local sled hockey division and the season has 14 games with seven at home and seven away. The closest team is in Baltimore, so that means a lot of travelling for their away games. “The time and travel alone is like being on a national travel team,” says Dutton. “I can’t say enough about the support of these parents. Even after 10 years, parents still thank me after every practice for being there and coaching their kids.”

The cost of sled hockey is significant. In addition to all of the regular hockey gear, players need specifically measured sleds and as kids get bigger they need to get new ones. The coaches are all volunteers and several organizations, including the Potomac Valley Hockey Association provide grants to the team. Additionally, Kettler Capitals Iceplex donates ice time, which can otherwise cost hundreds of dollars an hour.

“Hockey is expensive to begin with, but when you add in the cost of special equipment and travel, the costs can really pile up,” Joyce says. “We’re really lucky to have such generosity in this community.”

With the kids having such a wide range in age, the coaches are careful to make sure everyone gets to play. “We discuss a lot about making sure even our little guys can play, but the big guys aren’t going to smash them into the boards,” says Joyce. “They’ll steal the pucks of course, but they aren’t going to hurt them.”

Some of the athletes, such as 17-year-old Joel Pool have been involved from the start. “I started with a basketball program. At the Children’s Hospital, they would hand out information about these adapted sports and for a long time I thought, ‘I don’t want to do adapted sports, but eventually I figured I’ve got to stay fit and I started playing. I fell in love with it and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Spencer Davis is 6 years old and this is his second year on the team. His Dad, Dan Davis, watched the practice, cheering his son on from the viewing area above. “Spencer is the only kid at his school in a wheelchair and he does fine with it, but having sled hockey is a great opportunity for him to be around other kids who deal with the same things.”

The Sled Sharks are always looking for more kids to join the team. Parents who are interested in learning more about the team and how their child can join can check out the Sled Sharks' Facebook page, by going to medstarnrh.org/sports or emailing Joan Joyce at Joan.P.Joyce@medstar.net.

“This team gives these kids the ability to have an after-school sport like every other child in America,” Joyce says. “They love to go to school on Monday and say to their friends, ‘Hey, I played in a hockey game this weekend and we won.’”