Published: May 2, 2024 By ,

In the world of sled hockey, the stick is everything.

Players have two sticks, each equipped with a blade on one end and a stainless steel pick on the other that they drive into the ice to propel their sled at dizzying speeds up to 20 mph across the ice.

Since the sport’s inception in the 1960s as a way for athletes with lower limb amputations or impairments to play ice hockey, players have debated how long those sticks should be.

A new CU Boulder study seeks to find out.

“If you are not always trying to adapt and find that next little edge you are going to fall behind,” said Team Captain Josh Pauls, whose team will take to the ice in Calgary May 4–12 to try to clinch a fifth gold medal at the 2024 World Para Ice Hockey Championships.

Sixteen members of the team recently visited CU Boulder for what Alena Grabowski, an associate professor of integrative physiology, hopes will be the first in a series of studies aimed at helping sled hockey players improve their performance and minimize injury.

In sled hockey, players sit in a custom-designed sled positioned on top of two hockey skate blades. In an impressive high-speed dance, players often use one stick to push and the other to maneuver the puck.

“It’s a really unique movement in that players have to use their core and upper body to propel themselves, all while having enough agility to score,” she said.

For the study, Grabowski, director of the Applied Biomechanics Lab at CU Boulder, and doctoral candidate Zane Colvin put the team through a series of grueling tests to measure effort, speed and agility using three different stick lengths (one measuring from the back of the neck to the ice, another 2 inches shorter, and another 2 inches longer).

To measure effort, players wore a mask and device that tracked how much energy, in the form of calories, they burned as they skated around the ice rink.

In another test that measured maximum speed, players ripped straight across the ice as a radar gun tracked their speed.

In a final test for speed and agility, players maneuvered a course of twists and turns.

It will be a few months before the study results are formally published, and the researchers are staying quiet about what they found until that time. They hope their work, and more studies to come, can ultimately help all sled hockey players maximize performance.

Future studies will look at injury prevention.

“If (Team USA) wins another gold, I can say I helped with that,” said Colvin.

Grabowski—who has studied adaptive cycling, running, long jump and other sports—said she’s just happy to be doing work that can help all athletes perform at their best.

“I have the luxury of just grabbing my running shoes and heading out the door every morning and not having to think much about it, but not everyone has that luxury,” she said. “If I can help with either testing or designing equipment that allows a person with what is perceived as a disability move more effectively in the world, I am all about that.”