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Former Marine captain finds new mission in sled hockey

By: JOE PAISLEY joe.paisley@gazette.com
April 19, 2016 Updated: April 19, 2016 at 12:35 pm
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photo - U.S. Women's Sled Hockey team member Sarah Bettencourt, center, took part Monday, April 18, 2016, in the first sled hockey camp supported by the Semper Fi Fund and the USOC's military program at The Broadmoor World Arena Ice Hall. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
U.S. Women's Sled Hockey team member Sarah Bettencourt, center, took part Monday, April 18, 2016, in the first sled hockey camp supported by the Semper Fi Fund and the USOC's military program at The Broadmoor World Arena Ice Hall. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Something was missing from Sarah Bettencourt's life.

After years of serving her country, the former Marine Corps captain, forced to retire after suffering neurological damage during helicopter pilot training, was searching for a new purpose.

The Maryland native discovered it in sled hockey two years ago.

The California resident, 32, founded the San Diego Ducks women's sled hockey team. She threw herself into the adaptive sport and became a member of the U.S. women's national team; making the squad two months after the birth of her first child in 2014.

Sled hockey proved to be a lifeline after sinking into depression following her 2012 retirement.

"It actually saved my life," she said. "I went from being a captain in the Marines and serving my country to what seemed like nothing. It left a hole in my heart.

"I didn't know who I was anymore," she added. "I didn't even know about sled hockey before I was exposed to it at another sport's camp. I fell in love with it right away."

That connection and the therapeutic value of athletics is the goal behind the first sled hockey camp supported by the Semper Fi Fund and the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee military program. The three-day event at The Broadmoor World Arena Ice Hall brought 17 former injured servicemen and women to Colorado Springs to learn about the sport.

Bettencourt's new passion motivated her to help others by founding the team, supported by the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.

"I could no longer serve my country but I could be of service to other people," she said. "I am better off for it. I am stronger now mentally, emotionally and physically than I was before sled hockey."

Bettencourt's desire to support the sport at home is a reason behind the Semper Fi camps. Organizers hope the experience sparks long-term interest among other veterans.

That is the case for Ray Hennagir, who competed in sled hockey before, but played goalie for the first time this weekend. After playing as a stand-up hockey netminder as a youth, the excitement was evident for the former Marine from Dayton, Ohio, as the three-day camp concluded Monday.

"I will need to get some of my own goalie equipment and see about starting up a team," said Hennagir, who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2007. "I cannot wait to get back into this again. This was so much fun."

Part of the appeal of the sport is that the equipment equalizes players. Those without legs or with other lower-body limitations are the same as those without limits when strapped into a sled. The full contact hooks the players as does the camaraderie of a team sport.

"We're military," Hennagir said. "We love getting physical and playing violent sports. That's us all day."

Witnessing that enthusiasm was exciting for U.S. national team members Nikkos Landeros and Andy Yohe, who helped during the camp led by Dan Brennan, USA Hockey's director of its sled and inline national teams.

"There are plenty of big boys out there and they're not afraid to go out there and bang," Landeros said before Monday's morning session. "The military camps are fun because no one backs down or takes it easy.

"It's the third day and at other camps, some people would be staying home because they're tired, but all of them are back out there again," he added. "It's great to see how excited they are. Hopefully they take that back home and help the sport grow."

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