The team with a big heart captures sled hockey national title

They take to the ice for practice each Saturday evening with 13 hockey players, a handful of coaches and volunteers, and a whole lot of heart; and now with national gold medals.

The Sitting Bull sled hockey team is still riding high after recently defeating defending gold medalist Chicago to capture the National Disabled Hockey Tournament Class B championship, held in Boston earlier this month.

“It felt like I was winning a Stanley cup for our team,” said 19-year old defenseman Zachary Popelish of Bedford. “It was the first time we’ve won something that huge.”

Based in Johnstown and representing four central Pennsylvania counties, the team gives disabled youth the opportunity to learn, grow, and most importantly, compete through the game of hockey, played while sitting on sleds and using two sticks to propel themselves over the ice and slap the puck.

Zachary Popelish was born with a host of medical problems, including a heart defect that led to multiple surgeries. Doctors would not clear him to play his beloved football, and after trying out some non-competitive sport programs, Zach was drawn to sled hockey at the age of 13, and gravitated toward defense.

“I like hitting people, and I thought it would be a great way to do it,” he said. “I found out I can play with all of my disabilities, and I fell in love with it.”

Other players on the team are challenged by physical or cognitive issues; no one is turned away. Dedicated coaches work to create specialized equipment customized for each player’s needs. Ranging in age from eleven to nineteen, many have been together for years: training, traveling and evolving into a championship team.

The program has become a family affair for the Popelishes, with Zach’s dad, Mark, an assistant coach and mom, Debra, serving as board vice president. While the players hone their skills, parents work to raise money and recruit sponsors to keep them in the game, providing sleds, custom equipment and even some travel expenses.

“It’s been a godsend for us and for him,” said Debra Popelish. “It’s given him so many opportunities.”

While the team has had the chance to meet Olympic and professional athletes, including Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux, perhaps the greatest experience is simply being part of a team.

“They have learned camaraderie,” said Mark Popelish. “They know they are an important piece, not a damaged piece or a broken piece. They are team members; they belong; they contribute, and that carries over off the ice.”

With growing exposure during the Sochi Olympics, the sport of sled hockey is gaining popularity, and the Sitting Bulls encourage parents and youth to give it a try. Knowing concerns over injuries and cost, organizers stress the value of protective rules and equipment, as well as the team’s efforts to provide funding for all interested players.

The benefits are priceless.

“I feel like the disabilities don’t matter,” Zachary Popelish said, “it’s how hard you want to work.”

“You push them to be better and all of a sudden they aren’t disabled kids anymore,” said Mark Popelish. “You just see the hockey players.”

Those hockey players are now national champions.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.