While most teens his age are still snug in their beds, fast asleep, Nic Klassen rises bright and early every morning before school to start his daily routine. After getting dressed and brushing his teeth, the determined 14-year-old begins a 45-minute rehabilitative exercise regime with the help of his mother, Sharon — no easy task for the sufferer of cerebral palsy, a debilitating condition that affects his balance, mobility and fine motor skills. To get around, Nic depends on a walker and for longer distances — a wheelchair.
Despite his physical limitations, the Grade 9 student keeps a smile on his face and refuses to let any obstacles keep him off the ice. But it hasn’t always been smooth skating for the youngster, says Sharon, whose son is now known throughout his community as being an ‘ambassador for the physically disabled.’
“Nic went through a really dark time where he was getting very frustrated that he couldn’t play the sports his friends played. He was thinking ‘why should I even bother to continue living?’”
Like most of his peers, Nic has always dreamed of hitting the arena or outdoor pond — both plentiful in his hometown of Winkler, Manitoba — to partake in his country’s national sport, hockey.
“Canada is hockey, it’s who we are and I am Canadian, so… yea, I need to be able to play,” he said matter-of-factly.
When Nic was eight, Sharon discovered an alternative to the sport called sledge hockey, also known as sled hockey in the U.S.
“I hoped and prayed he’d get stronger after his surgery so he could give it a try,” said the hopeful mother of two, who contacted Bill Muloin, a supervisor of child recreation and leisure at the Society for Manitobans With Disabilities to learn more about the sport. Muloin started the sledge hockey program back in 2007.
Sledge hockey incorporates the same rules and discipline structure as regular ice hockey, except players sit on specially designed sleds with skate blades under the seats. Players also use two sticks instead of one to pass, stickhandle and shoot the puck, as well as to propel and manoeuvre their sledges.
Throughout Nic’s recovery period, which included spending six weeks in full length leg casts and relearning how to walk, the notion of finally being able to participate in a team sport was all the motivation he needed to stay positive and hopeful about his future. After a full year of rehabilitation, the young hockey hopeful was ready to get into gear and slip into a sledge.
With Bill’s help and encouragement, Nic was able to fulfil his lifelong dream — his mother’s too.
“I thought, oh please let this work,” said a tearful Sharon, who watched nervously in the stands. “All of a sudden he went from being nervous to gliding across the ice… it clicked for him… it was so amazing, I’m so thankful to Bill.”
For Nic, it was a day he’ll never forget.
“At first I didn’t know if I could even do this but I got on a sled and started skating — I was really excited,” he said. “I found I could skate, which was really cool!”
While his condition prevents him from shooting around a puck on his own two feet, sledge hockey has helped him to feel just like ‘one of the boys.’
“I discovered it was a great way I could finally play hockey with my friends,” said Nic, who commutes with his mom, 75 miles to an ice arena in Winnipeg every weekend to play.
“I enjoy that I can play hockey and that I can be on a team, finally!… I have something to live for.”
A highlight for Nic was when Bill visited his Grade 8 class at their local ice arena and brought along 15 sledges for his classmates to use.
“It was really neat to show them how to play and to be able to play with them,” said Nic.
While it was Bill who first nominated Nic as One Million Skates’ Hometown Hero, both Nic and his mother believe that he’s the one who should be honoured with the title.
“Bill is a very committed, passionate person… an ambassador for allowing all children of abilities to participate fully in a sport,” said Sharon. “Hockey is a big thing for Canadians… Just because a child has a disability doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be able to fulfil that dream. And, because of Bill, they can!”
Bill, who has been with SMD for the past 11 years and whose team has won the gold medal in the B division in Calgary, Alberta in its second year, says the real heroes are the parents and their children who go the extra mile to play Canada’s game.
“I just help them along the way,” he said modestly.
For more information about the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, visit www.smd.mb.ca. Also, check out Nic’s story, which was also recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey. The book makes the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer for the hometown hero on your list!