Some folks swim with the dolphins for fun. Last month, Bryson Dowdy got to skate with the Penguins.
Bryson, who has spina bifida, is a member of the Charleston Thunder Sled Hockey team, which plays at the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena. The 12-year-old John Adams Middle School student served as the Dick’s Sporting Goods Junior Starter for the Oct. 10 National Hockey League game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Anaheim Ducks at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
The Charleston Thunder is affiliated with Charleston Sled Hockey, a division of USA Hockey, that began play in South Charleston five years ago.
As well as being Bryson’s grandmother, Linda Streets of Charleston is the team manager and founder, and she explained last week how he joined the Penguins on the PPG Arena rink.
“The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation has been financially helping our team over the last four years,” Streets said. “We’d go up to Pittsburgh every year and pick up the check from them.
“This year when we went up in June, we met them at the rink instead of at the foundation’s offices,” she said. “We went into the Penguins’ locker room and saw their Stanley Cup replicas.
“They emailed me in September and said they always enjoyed meeting Bryson when he came to get the check. They wanted to extend this offer to be the Dick’s Sporting Goods Junior Starter at the game.”
Streets said the foundation paid for their hotel stay and “they gave us 36 tickets for family and friends so he’d have a big cheering section.”
Arriving at the arena, Bryson received a hockey sweater with his name on it, which he wore onto the ice when he joined the team during the playing of the national anthem prior to the first face-off.
“He got to sit on the players’ level to watch them warm up,” his grandmother said. “He went out on the ice and stood with the players during ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’”
“Actually, that was my first real professional NHL game,” Bryson said. “When they were doing their warmups, I was right at the ice on the other side of the glass windows; they were hitting the pucks up on the glass.
“And I saw Sidney Crosby — he’s one of my favorite players — and the goalie, Matt Murray,” Bryson said.
He also got to rub elbows (or is it elbows and flippers?) with another “celebrity” during the game as well: the Penguins’ costumed mascot, Iceburgh.
And, to sweeten the experience even further, the Penguins defeated the Ducks 2-1.
Bryson lives in Charleston with his mother, Emily Streets. He has been a member of the Charleston Sled Hockey team since his grandparents launched the group.
“I learned about sled hockey on Facebook in 2014,” Streets said. “We took him to Wheeling for a Learn Sled Hockey Day when he was 7. He loved it. Despite his disability, he’s always been very athletic and he loved it.
“They approached my husband and me about starting a team here. We went to a weekend seminar in Washington, D.C., to learn how to do it,” Streets said.
A Learn Sled Hockey Day was held in South Charleston in June 2015 and the team began play that October, she said.
“This is is the start of our fifth year now,” Streets said. “We play from October until mid or late March, on Mondays from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m. at the South Charleston Memorial Ice Arena.”
She said the Charleston Thunder is open to all ages. “We’ve had players with cerebral palsy, brittle bone disease, traumatic brain injury and lower limb discrepancy. We had one gentleman try it; he was a 75-year-old veteran who’d had his leg amputated. We’ve had players as young as 5 years old.”
The first year of Charleston Thunder membership is free, Streets said, and in following years, an annual fee of approximately $50 is charged by USA Hockey.
“We provide the sleds and all the protective equipment,” she said. “This is what the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation grant is used for. We have 16 sleds and equipment in all different sizes. If we don’t have the right size, I use the money to buy a smaller or bigger helmet for them — whatever the player needs.
“Believe it or not, helmets have expiration dates. At some point, we have to toss the helmets away and provide new ones for safety reasons,” Streets said, adding that each player receives a personalized jersey as well.
The weekly hour of play is recreational, not competitive, she noted.
“It’s a recreational hour on the ice where the players can enjoy themselves, get some exercise, socialize and meet other people with disabilities,” she said. “Bryson is the only kid at John Adams Middle School who uses a wheelchair. He goes to sled hockey and he’s not the only one there in a wheelchair.
“We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve had a couple of players, including Bryson, who have been invited to play on other teams and are able to go to tournaments and play in other games.”
For more information about the local sled hockey league, contact Linda Streets at 304-342-1459 or email@example.com.