Ritta students get lessons from Sled Bears

Josh FloryFeature, Northeast Knox, Our Town Kids

When hockey player Matthew Porterfield and his teammates visited Ritta Elementary School on a recent morning, students learned a lot about stick handling, passing and shooting.

But the more important lesson may have been about the importance of perseverance.

Porterfield uses a wheelchair because of injuries suffered in a dirt-bike accident when he was 18 years old. He’s still an avid athlete, though, and has won races including the Knoxville Marathon’s push rim division and the Wheeler Division of the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota.

Porterfield currently plays for the Knoxville Sled Bears, an ice hockey team whose members compete on sleds with skates.

His daughter is a third-grader at Ritta, and on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Porterfield and other members of the Sled Bears visited the school to teach kids about the sport.

At one end of the gym, students took turns sitting on a modified version of the sleds, with wheels instead of skates. When Porterfield rolled them a ball, students would try to shoot it into the goal, although many kids ended up falling over in the process.

In the center of the gym, Sled Bears team member Carly Pearson was helping students master the art of passing, while at the other end of the floor, team director Kristin LeBlanc was teaching kids how to propel themselves in the sleds, using sticks in both hands to push back and forth.

Kristin LeBlanc, director of the Knoxville Sled Bears, helps a Ritta Elementary student maneuver on a modified hockey sled.

LeBlanc grew up in Nashville, and her father was injured in an auto accident when she was 4. As she got older, her father would do in-school presentations that highlighted wheelchair sports, and LeBlanc said those presentations reduced the amount of teasing or bullying that she suffered, while also helping students with disabilities.

“It really helped educate the kids and open their eyes that there is more to this world than two legs and standup sports,” she said.

LeBlanc helped start a sled hockey program in Nashville about 15 years ago, and when she and her husband moved to Knoxville five years ago they wanted to start a local team. The Sled Bears currently have 13 members, and play against teams from Atlanta, Nashville and other cities in the Southeast. Some team members use wheelchairs off the ice, while others are able to walk.

The visit to Ritta was organized by teacher Ryan Ibbotson, who got the idea from a school in Maryland where he had worked previously. The Sled Bears had never done a school presentation before but were excited for the opportunity when Ibbotson reached out to them.

He said the activity was an eye-opener for students, not only because many of them were unaware of sled hockey but also because it gave them a new perspective on people with disabilities.

“That’s kind of the message that the Sled Bears have been sending today is that it doesn’t matter what adversity you’re facing in your life, that there’s always an avenue for you to find success,” he said. “And they’ve definitely found success on the ice.”

Josh Flory is a multi-media specialist with Knox County Schools and writes the blog Hall Pass for the KCS website.

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