Back to the Future
Tom Brake and his family returns to the rink where he first saw the sport that has impacted so many lives in South Jersey.
by Bill Kile III
ATLANTIC CITY - This was no ordinary trip down the Atlantic City Expressway for Tom Brake, his wife Lynn and daughter Lori.
The Blackwood family was returned to where it all started December 2019. Yes, it may have seemed like just another game for everyone else in attendance that came out on the raw and windy night at the Flyers Skate Zone on North Albany Avenue with the skyline of glimmering casinos in the background.
But for the Brakes, this is where a chance encounter by Tom Brake 17 years ago changed the course of their lives – and so many youngsters – in South Jersey.
This is the rink where Brake, now 77, first encountered sled hockey which is an adaptive version of hockey for individuals with physical disabilities. He was a referee and assigned to work at sled hockey tournament at the facility.
“I called my wife and daughter and said ‘You’ve got to come and see this’,” recalled Brake, who has been involved in ice hockey in various capacities for more than five decades.
During that first game officiating sled hockey, Brake admitted he had to get used to having the players and action mainly near ice level, much lower than stand up or able body hockey.
Watching the team he created in 2001 earlier this month, Brake points to the spot on the ice where he fell over a player during that first game.
“I thought I hurt him,” said Brake, a carpenter with Virtua Hospital before retiring in 2011. “Then I looked over and he was laughing. That was when I was hooked (on sled hockey).”
Brake wanted to get more involved in the sport he had just discovered. So he reached out to Mike Doyle of the Atlantic Hammerheads, one of the teams that played in the first game Brake saw.
The Hammerheads, out of a suburb of Philadelphia, was the closest sled hockey team to the area.
So Brake decided he wanted to start a team in South Jersey and in April 2001, the South Jersey Wings of Steel were born.
Doyle said Brake could have the four players from South Jersey that were playing for the Hammerheads.
Danny Wheeler and Erin Gordon, both of Shamong, Keith Shelton of Pittsgrove and Anthony DiLoreto of Medford were the original players of the new South Jersey team.
The South Jersey Wings of Steel grew from four players in the spring of 2001 to more than twice that number by June of that year.
More than 100 players have donned the Wings of Steel uniform.
Tim Jones of Mount Ephraim is undoubtedly the most famous alumnus of the South Jersey Wings of Steel.
Playing for the U.S. men’s national sled hockey team, Jones won a bronze medal in the 2006 Paralympics in Torino, Italy and a gold medal in 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada.
And he still plays today with the Philadelphia Flyers adults sled team.
Like a family
As with any sports team, the Wings of Steel are like family.
And with family, there are the good times, as well as heartache.
Four players who have been involved with the program have passed - and two occurred while still playing with the team.
Michael Senk of Blackwood passed away from heart failure in 2004 at the age of 12. Senk died a day before the Wings were going away to compete in a tournament and his father Dennis, insisted the team still go and play despite the tragedy.
Jessica Shaw of Cherry Hill died two days after the team’s annual golf fund-raising tournament in April 2013. She was 26.
Shaw was like the team mom on the ice and was the heart and soul of the Wings of Steel.
Former Wings of Steel players Tim Horgan, 19 and Erin Hall, 28 died in 2010 and 2017, respectively.
Paul Valentine, whose son Matthew played during the first season, is still involved with the Wings of Steel as the team’s volunteer head coach.
Matthew Valentine is now a physician assistant at Inspira Medical Center in Voorhees.
Bobby Keys, another player from the first season, is a volunteer coach who mentors and supports the team at practices and games.
Dennis Senk is still involved with the team as an equipment manager and makes sure players are fit properly in their sleds.
And Brake’s daughter, Lori, has been the manager since the team’s inception in 2001.
What is sled hockey?
Sled hockey was first developed in Norway in 1971 in order to meet the special recreational, emotional and physical needs of disabled children and adults.
Sled hockey is similar to ice hockey. The rules are virtually identical, with exception of the equipment used. Players are strapped into custom sleds, and two stake blades on the bottom. Instead of one long stick, sled players use two short sticks with metal picks on one end and a blade on the other. Players used the pick ends to propel themselves across the ice.
Anyone who has played hockey knows it can be an expensive sport.
Between the equipment and paying for ice time, it can often be too costly for young athletes to consider.
What has set the Wings of Steel apart is that is it totally free for the families and their children to participate in the program. And is has been that way since day one.
Many children with disabilities have never had the opportunity to be on a team, or meet other kids who are like them. This sport enables that to happen. The smiles on kids faces who are able to be apart of a team and play a sport, are priceless.
Make a donation
The Wings of Steel sled hockey team is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and donations are tax-deductible.
The team practices from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Thursdays at the Flyers Skate Zone in Voorhees.
The team’s annual fund-raising golf tournament is scheduled for April 26, 2019 at the Ramblewood Country Club in Mount Laurel.