When the United States won the inaugural International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Cup in Canada last month, Kelsey DiClaudio had plenty to celebrate.
In the championship game against Canada, she scored four goals and had an assist in the 5-1 victory. And over the course of the entire tournament (in which the Americans went 5-0), DiClaudio led her team with 16 goals and 23 points.
For her performance, she was selected IPC Athlete of the Month for November.
But none of her plays comes to mind when she’s asked what she’ll remember about the tournament. It’s not a goal, a pass or a hard check delivered in the corner.
“In the gold-medal game, I was out on the ice and there were seconds left … and there was a battle along the boards in the corner, and my teammate was battling for the puck,” she said. “Then the buzzer sounded and we just started screaming and everyone cleared the bench. It was an unforgettable moment.”
It was not only a significant victory for the Americans, but a milestone for women’s sled hockey.
It marked the debut of the Women’s International Cup, the first global tournament for women, and it featured the United States, Canada and a combined team from Europe. That team included players from Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Great Britain.
|Kelsey DiClaudio attends the Women's Sports Foundation's 35th Annual Salute to Women In Sports awards at Cipriani Wall Street on Oct. 15, 2014 in New York City.
“It was a great experience, a great opportunity to play in it, the first tournament ever for women internationally,” said DiClaudio, a 17-year-old high school senior from Pittsburgh. “Just to go there and all of us to represent our country and to do as well as we did is just an amazing experience.”
DiClaudio hopes it opens the door to big growth for women in sled hockey. She says she’d love to see it grow so there are as many women playing as there are men.
DiClaudio is working toward trying to make the U.S. sled hockey team for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Though no women have played for the U.S. sled hockey team (or any nation) at the Paralympic Winter Games, the roster is open for a woman in because it’s a mixed-gender sport.
DiClaudio — who has a long history of playing sled hockey against men in the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins program — made the U.S. development team this year. That’s the feeder program for the national team. This year she’ll take part in development camps and continue to work toward playing with the national team. According to a USA Hockey official, if a woman is deemed to be among the best 18 players in the nation leading up to the 2018 Winter Games, she’ll be selected.
DiClaudio says she’d love to be “the first female to make the national team.”
In fact, only one woman has played at a major IPC sled hockey event. That was in 2009 and 2011, when Betty Meijer-Hazewindus played for the Netherlands in two international events.
DiClaudio has been playing in the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins program since she was in the second grade. Since then, she’s continued to play against the boys in the program. She now is the only woman in the adult men’s program, but holds her own against top competition. The Mighty Penguins have regularly played men’s teams from across the country. One of her friends in the program is Dan McCoy, a member of the U.S. sled hockey team that won a gold medal at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.
“I’ve known Dan since I was little,” DiClaudio recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He’s just an amazing player and he’s taught me so much. I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him.”
DiClaudio isn’t a big player physically, so she knows she can’t overpower many of her opponents. But she knows the game, has quick hands, an ability to score and isn’t intimidated.
“I’m just used to it,” she said of playing against men. “I’ve always played with the guys. They hit me and they hit me just as hard as they would hit another guy, but I think I’m just used to it. I keep getting back up and I keep playing the way I play.”
DiClaudio, who was born with tethered spinal cord syndrome and has endured numerous back surgeries, said she was introduced to sled hockey when another student at her school — who volunteered with the Mighty Penguins — suggested to Kelsey’s mother that it might be a good opportunity for her.
Once she tried it, she was hooked. She tried wheelchair basketball, but it wasn’t for her. It’s been all about hockey since the second grade. She’s also a huge NHL fan, with her hometown Penguins (of course) being her favorite team.
But being on the ice is what she loves best.
“I like to make things happen,” she said of her playing style. “I like to be a playmaker, and my ability to control the puck and my hands, definitely along the boards when I’m battling for the puck, that’s one of my strong points.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.