For the first time since they were paralyzed in an April bus crash, two Humboldt Broncos players will take the ice for a sled hockey exhibition in Denver on Friday.
Defenseman Ryan Straschnitzki and goalie Jacob Wassermann will join disabled veterans and some U.S. National Team players during intermission of Friday's Denver vs. Providence game. Their trips are being sponsored by Dawg Nation Hockey, a Denver-based foundation that helps hockey people in times of need.
Straschnitzki, 19, was paralyzed from the chest down and Wassermann, 18, was paralyzed from the waist down by the April bus crash that killed 16 people, including many of their teammates. They both pledged they would stay involved in the sport after the crash.
"Pretty much the second I woke up from the hospital, I decided I wanted to try sled hockey," Wassermann said. "And I was going to start as soon as possible."
Said Straschnitzki: "Hockey is so important to me. It's been such a big part of my life, it's somewhere I feel at home."
Straschnitzki lives in Calgary and first got on a sled in July. He skates three to four times per week with a personal skills coach. Wassermann, who lives in Humboldt, began skating on a sled for the first time in October and joins a sled hockey team in Regina on Sundays whenever he is free.
The teammates have kept in touch and reunited with most of the Broncos at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, but many of the players have fanned out since the crash. That makes this weekend particularly meaningful to Wassermann.
"We still keep in touch, group chat and everything," he said. "Don't get to see those guys very often. That's why this weekend will be great. Just a couple days of guys hanging out, going to a sporting event, having a fun time."
Martin Richardson, the founder of Dawg Nation, initially planned on flying Straschnitzki out but added Wassermann at the suggestion of Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. Bednar grew up in Humboldt and played hockey with Wassermann's father, Kirby, as children.
"I'm sure that will be emotional the first time they get on the ice together," Bednar said. "Those kids have been unbelievable. What they've had to go through, the way they carry themselves and their attitude -- it's really impressive but also really inspiring."
Straschnitzki and Wassermann will also drop the puck when the Avalanche host the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.
"The stronger the support system that you have, the better off you're going to be," Bednar said. "It's something that happened, and there was such an outpouring of support, but I think they need to know there's continued support coming their way, in whatever form that takes, that's really important as those guys try to establish themselves and get through some of the tough times. It's just the right thing to do."
Both players are still undergoing significant rehab, with Straschnitzki going through four sessions per week.
"The main goal is to get my core working again," he said. "They found some movement and some core ability left, so they're trying to activate that more and get it stronger. I want to become more independent and hopefully walk again."
Wassermann rehabs at a clinic specializing in spinal cord injuries in Regina. He drives out on Thursdays for a four-hour session, stays overnight, and has a three-hour session on Friday. He also sees a therapist once a week in Saskatoon.
"It's all paying off. I'm seeing results," Wassermann said. "I've gotten use of my hip flexors, like the flexion in my hips back. I've started to get some use in my glutes. Going to rehab helps me get stronger so I can practically use them. When you first get them back, they're so weak you can't do anything with them, so you're going to have to put in a lot of work so you can use them a little bit."
Straschnitzki has been working on sled hockey with his coach and mentor Chris Cederstrand, an alternate captain for Team Canada's Paralympic team in Sochi. Straschnitzki is focusing on skills for now, "but if I want to get to the physical aspect of things, I could try out for a team when I'm ready," he said.
Wassermann's first time on a sled was at Humboldt's home arena last month. Someone brought over a bunch of sleds, he invited a handful of buddies, and they tried the sport together.
"Playing in the Olympics would be the main goal, but I'm still learning the sport. I still have to see if it's still the path for me," said Wassermann, who has also tried waterskiing, a racer for track and field and basketball. "Before, the only sport I played is hockey, because that's what I dedicated my life to. I still love it, but I also love the idea of exploring."
Asked what he wanted people to get out of his story, Wassermann said: "If anyone else is going through a situation similar to mine, just know you can be completely independent in everything you do and don't let anyone tell you anything different. Anything you want to do, you can go out and do it. I've been able to do everything on my own. If something seems like you can't do it, you just need to figure out something a little different. It may take time. But anything you put your mind to, you can do it."