Being competitive again
By John George
Luke Schmitz always had a competitive drive.
It drove him as a youngster in games with friends and relatives. It drove him as a teen in high school sports and in the classroom to be a better student. It drove him to the military after graduating from Perham High School.
When Luke lost his right leg in an IED accident while serving in Iraq 18 months ago, he lost more than his leg. He lost his ability to compete.
For a while.
He spent 11 months in San Antonio, Texas recovering from his injuries.
"I became active again," Luke said. "I learned to adapt to my capabilities and got back to some activities, but I missed being competitive."
While rehabilitating at Ft. Sam Houston, Luke got involved in sled hockey. Sled hockey players sit on a sled with two blades running down each side, with a balancing bar out front. Players propel themselves by using the sharp edges on the ends of their sticks. Players are amputees or paraplegics.
"I had never really played hockey as a kid," Luke said. "I had done a little skating, but not much."
He was invited to play and liked it. Through an organization called "Operation Comfort", Luke learned to play the game with fellow wounded soldiers who were rehabilitating at the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center.
He bought his own sled and continued practicing with stand-up players at rinks in Detroit Lakes and in Bemidji, where he's a student at Bemidji State.
In March, he received a call from his buddies in San Antonio asking him to play in the 4th Annual USA National Disabled Festival, being held at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, MA.
He left for San Antonio to meet up with the team. Before heading east, the team played an exhibition at the AT Center following a game of the San Antonio Rampage, a minor league hockey team.
"It was Military Appreciation Night," Luke said. "There was a large turnout of soldiers and general public. The place was pretty full. That was a lot of fun."
Luke and his teammates went to Massachusetts April 4-5. The U.S. team is unique in comparison to other teams at the tournament. Their roster is always changing as soldiers rehab, then return home.
Still, they were able to manage one win in their four games in the tournament.
"Not bad for a bunch of guys who hadn't playing together very much," Luke said. "Not so bad at all."
One of the highlights for Luke was they were able to watch the Gold Medal sled hockey game in the World Para-Olympics, which were being held in Boston.
"Those guys were really good," he said. "That was a cool experience.
"I missed competing," he continued. "It was great getting back into competition. It was a really big part of feeling like myself again. It was really fun."
A team is forming this summer here in Minnesota, and Luke has been invited to play. They will practice when they can and he figured they played in a few tournaments a year, and they have regular games against a team from Chicago.
"It will be worth the drive for practice and games," Luke said. "I haven't skated right now in about three weeks and I totally miss it."
For a glimpse into what sled hockey looks like, go to youtube.com and search sled hockey.