Hockey players who compete for fun of the game

The Kings trail 5-4 with just over four minutes to play, when two quick goals in two minutes gave them a 6-5 lead. With 25 seconds remaining in the third period, David Donnelly moves into the faceoff circle; he’s determined to maintain the lead. After a save by the Kings’ goaltender, Donnelly leads a three-on-two break and tucks away an insurance goal with seven seconds left.

“It feels good when we work together as a team,” said Donnelly, 51, who has been named the captain of the team since being acquired by the Kings, last November.

Every Saturday, Sunnyview Public School in North York plays host to the Toronto Power Wheelchair Hockey League (TPWHL).

Donnelly considers the league a great social opportunity for people with disabilities.

“Why (did I join the TPWHL)? I wanted to find something I could do out of the house, where I could interact with others in chairs,” he said.

Current league president Esther Dzura and Paul MacDougall founded the TPWHL in 2006. Prior to the league, wheelchair hockey in Toronto was played at Holland Bloorview Kids’ Rehabilitation Hospital (Bloorview), a rehab facility for children with physical disabilities. At Bloorview, Dzura volunteered for hockey, servicing the chairs and refereeing.

“After a couple of years, (staff at Bloorview) felt the parents were capable of handling the program, and asked if I would take the lead in managing hockey,” Dzura said.

Since the TPWHL’s inception, Dzura has been the central figure of the league, doing “basically everything,” as she puts it.

“I do too many things for the league,” she laughed. “I manage and operate the league, which includes all purchases such as jerseys, sticks and equipment. I do the entire league accounting, bookkeeping and posting of expenses, including the banking. I take care of the fundraising.”

The league receives no government support, but builds its finances through fundraising. Dzura organizes most of the fundraising too.

Instead of an ice surface and a puck, the game is played on hardwood floor with a plastic ball. In addition, teams play four-on-four with goalies and teams are only permitted to change players at a stoppage in play.

The majority of penalties follow those of ice hockey, but as TPWHL referee Adam Walsh pointed out, there are some unique to wheelchair hockey such as ramming, drawing blood, backing up and dangerous driving.

“Most of the calls are based on safety,” TPWHL referee Adam Walsh said. “I made that call against Issaac (Vescio) because he had his stick up and I warned him.”

In Walsh’s opinion, the TPWHL is bigger than the game; the league is a gathering place that allows players to feel accepted and where they can make new friends.

“A lot of people come and they might not know anyone,” he said. “But everyone goes out and has a good time.”

The league participates in many social events, including the annual Sean Ross Memorial Classic, a charity game played every August in Toronto. Every summer, the TPWHL participates in either the North American Power Hockey Cup or the Canadian Electric Power Hockey Tournament. Nine talented players from the league participate in the tournaments, involving eight teams in games played over five or six days.

“My favourite part about the tournaments is getting to know the players on your team a little more than you normally would because you’re spending so much time together,” said Clayton Thomas, one of the 2014 tournament coaches.

Thomas says that since power wheelchair hockey was invented in the 1970s, it has been expanding internationally.

“People are always trying to grow the league and reach out internationally and to as many people as possible. I think the idea of growing the game has always been there,” he said.

There are power wheelchair hockey leagues in the Netherlands, Norway, Russia and Sweden and tournaments played across Europe.

It’s noon on a Saturday and it’s Esther Dzura’s favourite part of the week – making the trip to Sunnyview Public School to watch wheelchair hockey and cheer on the teams. She maintains that she has never missed a game in nine years.

“I enjoy seeing the exciting rookie score his first goal or when a goalie becomes the hero for his team by stopping a shot,” Dzura said.