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Local sled hockey player overcomes adversity

Courtesy photo Queen native Wesley Hunter has been a member of the Johnstown Sitting Bulls sled hockey program for four years.

It has often been said that a person’s success is not determined by the number of obstacles that he or she faces, but instead by the approach and attitude that is embraced in facing those obstacles.

Wesley Hunter has learned that lesson very early in his life.

Hunter, 17, who lives with his family in the village of Queen near Claysburg, was born with spina bifida, a disorder in which a developing baby’s spinal cord fails to develop or close properly.

Life expectancy for people with the disorder varies, but the most severe complications occur from associated conditions like renal failure.

Surgeries are often required to treat the condition, and Hunter has already endured several. He has recently begun taking medication to combat muscle spasms, and attends periodic physical therapy sessions at Claysburg-Kimmel High School, where he will be a senior this fall.

Hunter walks with the help of leg braces and crutches that involve wearing cuffs around his forearms.

“He can walk, but he pretty much can’t feel anything from the waist down,” said Hunter’s mother, Summer Clowson. “But he has a wonderful attitude about the hand that he’s been dealt, and he is very determined.

“If he wants to do something, he will make it happen.”

Hunter said that he tries his best to maintain a positive outlook despite the challenges that he has faced from what is a chronic, lifelong condition.

“I always see the glass half-full,” Hunter said. “I’m an optimist, I guess.”

For the past four years, Hunter has been a member of the Johnstown Sitting Bulls sled hockey program, which was started in 2008 to offer sports competition for individuals with physical disabilities.

Hunter is one of two sled hockey players from the Johnstown program, and one of just 50 from across the entire United States, to be invited by the U.S.A. Hockey organization to participate in the 15th annual U.S.A. Sled Hockey Select Camp this Sunday through Friday at the Virtua Center Flyer Skate Zone facility in Voorhees, N.J.

Following the camp, which will involve classroom as well as on-ice instruction, Hunter and the other invited players will be attending a tryout at the Voorhees complex for a spot on the United States Junior National Sled Hockey team.

“I’m happy and I feel privileged to be getting this opportunity,” said Hunter, who plays a forward position on the Johnstown team. “I was very surprised to get selected. It’s pretty incredible.”

Hunter was selected by the USA Hockey organization after his coach with the Sitting Bulls, Brian Buchkovich, recently submitted video footage to the organization of Hunter and two other members of the Johnstown program from a practice session.

Johnstown is a member of the Northeast Sled Hockey League, which customarily holds its seasons from September through March, with home games at the Cambria County War Memorial’s First Summit Arena and road competitions up and down the East Coast.

The team on which Hunter participates competes at the Adult Intermediate Level, which involves older and more skilled players. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team hasn’t played an organized competition since March of 2020, but plans are for it to start its 2021-22 season this fall.

Buchkovich — whose grown son, Ethan, also has spina bifida, is also a member of the Johnstown team, and was selected by USA Hockey to go to the New Jersey camp as well — had high words of praise for Hunter.

“He’s a great kid,” Buchkovich said of Hunter, who is a solid student in the classroom at Claysburg-Kimmel, and received the school’s Bulldog Pride Award last year for his courage and resilience in the face of adversity. “He’s very fast, very determined, he’s left-handed, and he has a very hard shot. He’s a very smart player who could play any position on the ice for us.

“He’s a very quiet, very nice kid who listens to instruction that he’s given and tries to follow it and implement it on the ice.”

The rules for sled hockey are the same as they are for regular ice hockey, except for the fact that the players move around the ice in custom-fitted sleds that rest on two skate blades. The players use two shortened hockey sticks with spikes on the ends of the sticks to propel themselves around the ice and shoot the puck.

At the Adult Intermediate Level, full checking is permitted. There is also a Beginner’s Level and a Junior Level, and children and adults of any age group can participate in appropriate levels in the organization. Equipment is provided free of charge, and the organization also takes care of a percentage of each player’s travel expenses for hotels.

Players from Blair, Cambria, Bedford, Indiana and Somerset counties participate at the various levels in the Johnstown organization, and practices are held at Johnstown and at Altoona’s Galactic Ice facility.

“It gives these players a conduit for competitive sports,” Buchkovich said of the sled hockey program. “A lot of my athletes are very, very competitive, but because of their disabilities, they can’t compete in traditional sports. This gives them that outlet.”

And it’s an outlet for which Hunter is exceedingly grateful.

“It took me awhile to get used to the sled, but now, I am a lot more comfortable,” Hunter said. “It’s really fun to be a member of a team, and to be around other people.

“It’s good to stay active, and it keeps me healthy, and takes my mind off of everything else.”

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