RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Larney Johnson locked his arms into a position to where he could push himself up and out of his wheelchair, but he hesitated for a brief second.
In front of him on the ground was this contraption – about three feet of silver metal rods connected on one end to a black plastic bucket-shaped seat. This kayak-looking thing with skating blades beneath it was about to take him out onto an ice rink.
“There's really no graceful way to do this,” said Todd Jenkins, manager of the Los Angeles Kings Sled Hockey team, as he crouched down next to Johnson.
“You don't get style points,” added his wife, Christie Jenkins, who just finished fitting Johnson with some borrowed shoulder pads, elbow pads and a helmet with a face cage.
The 23-year-old from Inglewood, Calif., who goes by “LJ” had encountered enough challenges in his life to this point, not the least of which was surviving a drive-by shooting when he was 15 that left him paralyzed below the waist.
Once Johnson got situated into the sled with the Jenkins' help, he sat upright and asked that his legs be slightly bent at the knees. Todd used a hex wrench to make adjustments on the sled's length and Christie got a roll of special tape to wrap Johnson's feet around the end post.
Todd then attached a gadget with wheels on the bottom of the sled to pull Johnson across the rubberized floor, up the ramp and onto the full-sized hockey rink.
Just like that, Johnson was a sled hockey player.
And the Jenkinses, showing even more grace and deserving of every style point possible, had another successful launch.
Just a couple days earlier, Johnson caught TV coverage of the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team start its quest for back-to-back gold medals, playing in Sochi, Russia, not long after the XXII Winter Games ended.
The American team is bursting with inspirational stories about perseverance and achievement by those who have endured paralysis or amputations. Like Purple Heart recipients Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney. Teenagers in 15-year-old phenom Brody Roybal and 16-year-old linemate Declan Farmer. And standout goalie Steve Cash, who led the squad to the 2010 Paralympic gold in Vancouver.
The U.S. has returned to the gold-medal game, a rematch against the home-favorite Russians, who upset them earlier in the tournament. Saturday's championship game on NBC has special interest to this group of sled hockey upstarts from Southern California, who plan to have a team watching party for it.
The San Bernardino-based Jenkins family pulled this group together, inspired as an activity for their own son Nick, born 13 years ago with spina bifida. Quickly, they were helping other boys and girls and men and women, as young as 7 and as old as nearly 40, from all kinds of situations have put them in wheelchairs either from birth or a recent injury.
Johnson tracked down the Jenkinses on their Facebook page and drove himself a couple hours east down the 91 Freeway in rush-hour traffic for the new adventure at the Kings Icetown Rink for a practice and scrimmage.
One by one, the word, like the sled itself, is pushing forward.
“Hockey is already kind of a unique sport, and then there's sled hockey a niche of a niche sport,” said Christie Jenkins, an English teacher at San Gorgonio High. “But it's really turning heads.”
Todd Jenkins is a stay-at-home dad, freelance writer and substitute teacher who finds managing this team pretty much a full-time job as far as fundraising, recruiting and publicizing what they're doing.
In 2009, a family friend from the East Coast sent the Jenkinses video of what sled hockey looked like. Once Nick said he wanted to try it, they searched a team in the Inland Empire. When they couldn't find one, they created it themselves.
“It takes kind of a crazy person to start one of these teams,” Christie said. “We didn't know how it would happen, but it's really fun now.”
Todd said he has seen Nick go from someone who was “somewhat timid” playing other wheelchair sports to where he has “lost weight and gotten stronger. This has really paid off.”
Since he was 8, Nick had tried wheelchair versions of tennis and basketball, but Christie said he “just wanted to knock people out of their chairs.” His younger brother Christopher had been active in gymnastics, soccer and tennis, and Nick was getting bored watching him compete in sports.
Christie says Nick “likes the athleticism. We have already treated him as a normal kid, having him do chores, making him figure out how to get it done and deal with these issues. It's about disabilities, not inabilities.”
Other players on the team prove that on a regular basis.
Pedro Gomez-Ramos, born in Mexico and living in Loma Linda, deals with osteogenesis imperfecta – a genetic disorder also known as brittle bone disease. His left leg was amputated because of it.
During a recent tournament game, the 21-year-old assistant captain was checked into the boards and suffered a separated shoulder. Rather than have paramedics cut through his Kings jersey, he insisted they take it off over his injured shoulder to preserve it from being damaged. There was Gomez-Ramos banging his sled around like a bumper car at the practice, enjoying every minute of it.
One of his new teammates, Hans Blum, lives in Wildomar just south of Lake Elsinore. Blum lost both legs after he was struck by a homemade explosive device while deployed in Afghanistan. During his recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, the longtime Boston Bruins fan learned about sled hockey and played for more than a year with the USA Warriors, a team made of wounded veterans.
Once the 32-year-old Marine staff sergeant moved back to California to be with his wife and stepkids, he found the Kings Sled Hockey team.
“It keeps me physically active and it's the reason I go to the gym six times a week, so I can build myself to be stronger and a better player,” he said. “I love the physical aspect during the games. That's what separates sled hockey from a lot of other adaptive sports out there.”
Retired Army vet Wesley Leon-Barrientos has also been coming to practices having picked up the game in Bakersfield. Leon-Barrientos, 29, lost both his legs to a roadside bomb during his third deployment to Iraq, the third time he was injured in combat. He was part of a hand-cycling wheelchair team two years ago that crossed the country in 100 days to raise awareness for the health challenges Iraq and Afghanistan vets face upon returning home.
“I enjoy the contact sports, before and after I was wounded, and without missing a beat, hockey fits in perfect,” said Leon-Barrientos, involved in sled hockey for just more than a year. “I also enjoy bringing my leadership skills and putting them to work on the ice and being able to lead by example with my team.”
This Kings team was put together through all kinds of connections. Joshua Swope of Lakewood, for example, was watching a game in Ontario featuring the Kings' minor-league affiliate when the Jenkinses came across him in the handicapped access section of the arena. The Jenkinses have found players through physical therapists, abilities expos, even while going through the supermarket.
“It's true, we seem to always be sizing up new players,” Christie said.
They have two main rosters – one for those younger than 18 and an adult team. It also merges with teams and players involved in similar sled hockey teams in Bakersfield and Oxnard.
Certified as a full Paralympic sport club, the Jenkinses' program connected with the Kings and soon arranged for a $5,000 donation from the Kings Care Foundation. That came in handy – the costs for sleds, for example, begin at $600 and can cost twice that for more customized versions.
Nearly half of the NHL teams sponsor and equip sled teams. At the 2013 Sled Hockey Classic in Pittsburgh in November, 14 NHL teams were represented in three levels of competition. The Kings' nine-person Division C team that included Jenkins, Barrientos, Gomez-Ramos and Swope, and led by player-coach Andrew Hodge and captain Terry Miller, became the first team from California to participate in the event with an NHL partner.
The Kings Sled Hockey team skated at Staples Center as part of the Kings Fan Fest prior to this current season, and they will do another demonstration between periods at the Kings-Winnipeg game March 29. They are also raising money to send some players to the Disabled Hockey Festival in Boston next month.
“It was a no-brainer to get involved with their program,” said Chris Crotty, the Kings director of fan development. “This is all about continuing the growth of the sport of hockey in Southern California, and this is a killer program. The more people playing hockey the better as far as the Kings are concerned. It's that simple. The passion on the ice motivates everyone to make it happen.”
Daryl Evans, the former Kings player and current broadcaster, said he has had a couple of chances to sit in the hockey sled and practice with the team, including some from the U.S. National squad during a clinic.
“It was a humbling experience,” he said. “What some of those players can do as far as stick handling and passing the puck, all the same kind of hand-eye coordination as a stand-up player, but there is so much demand on your core strength to turn and maneuver and shift your weight – they are like magicians.
“It's a wonderful extension of the game. And it is so much the same game – same ice, same disc to move around. All the credit to them. You have to give them the utmost respect.”
The Kings' support gives us “a lot of credibility as a program,” Christie Jenkins said. “Maybe by the 2018 Paralymics, we'll have some players from the West Coast make the team. That's the goal.”
The rink was divided into three sections for this 6-to-7 p.m. time frame a space that can cost some $300 an hour to rent the whole piece of ice.
On one end, about a dozen members of the Kings Sled Hockey team broke off into a scrimmage. Between the blue lines going north and south, about four younger sled hockey players were learning the game with a coach. On the far end, an able-bodied youth team practices. When the time was up, the sled team was supposed to leave the ice, but the group that was supposed to come behind them didn't show up. The sled team got back out there and kept playing.
For now, the Kings Sled Hockey team has one regular female, Summer Samuelson, who has been playing goalie. During the recent practice, another strong-minded woman decided she was ready, willing and able.
“I've never been to an ice rink before,” Jenna Rollman of Rancho Cucamonga confessed as the Jenkinses fitted her with equipment.
The 26-year-old Chaffey College student, with streaks of turquoise and fuchsia in her hair, has been in a chair for only a year, suffering a cycling accident that put her in a situation where “I couldn't put on my shoes, couldn't roll over, I was like a baby.”
She says she still suffers from neurological pain, but manages it some days better than others. Today, it was worth trying sled hockey.
“It's not in my nature to give up,” she said. “I'm not afraid. The human body is capable of doing amazing things because we really don't have limits. It's amazing to see that I can do things I thought were impossible. It makes me want to try new challenges like this.”
Larney Johnson was trying to figure out the best way to describe how he was learning to keep balance on the sled as he pushed himself around the ice.
“You know how when you're in a classroom and rocking your chair and you're about to tip over ... whoa, you lose your balance,” said Johnson, who had been into basketball, football and tennis in his able-body days.
It should be noted that Johnson, already a longtime Kings fan, was wearing a custom-ordered hockey jersey to include the ubiquitous blue and white handicapped wheelchair symbol on the front and his nickname, Tazz, with the No. 4 on the back.
When Todd Jenkins wheeled Johnson back off the ice at the end of the scrimmage, Johnson had even more of a commitment to continue.
“One step at a time, today is just the first day of training,” he said, noting that he had put an Instagram video clip of himself (his handle is “LivingOnWheels”) sledding around on the ice.
A few days earlier, Johnson had already posted a video of the U.S. national team playing in Russia.
Along with that was a message: “YOU HEARD IT FIRST!! I, Larney L. Johnson IV Will Play For the USA Come 2018 In The Paralympics In Sled Hockey #NewGoal #Amazing #CantBelieveTheyHaveThis.”