WEST CHESTER, Pa. – Cancer robbed Bill Bogdan of the childhood sports experience. Through sled hockey, Bogdan has been stealing that time back for the past 10 years.
“The whole opportunity to play sports is phenomenal,” Bogdan said. “I got a chance to live a second childhood kind of over again because I never got that exposure to activity.”
Bogdan, 44, plays for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) Blackhawks, who lost 5-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night in their first game at the USA Hockey Sled National Championships as part of the USA Hockey Disabled Festival at the Ice Line Quad Rinks in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I wish I could be a kid again,” Bogdan said. “I never had those opportunities growing up. Now there are so many great programs run by organizations like USA Hockey.”
As disabilities liaison for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office, Bogdan spends his professional life as an advocate for disabled people. Through his recreational life, he is a strong supporter of activities such as sled hockey, even interrupting a recent “date night” with his wife Laura to approach a double amputee who he convinced to try the sport and join the RIC Blackhawks “B” team.
“Growing up, I never had that opportunity,” Bogdan said. “I never knew what it was like to be on a team. It has really been an eye-opener for me. I’ve loved every minute of it. I cherish every moment I can play with the RIC Blackhawks. They’re just a great group of guys. They’re like family.”
Only a special moment in his own family could take Bogdan away from the Blackhawks and the USA Hockey Sled National Championships: Bill and Laura Bogdan’s third child, Madelyn, was born April 9, 2012, the day before nationals started.
Now Bogdan is back with the team enjoying another national tournament for the ninth time in 10 years and thankful for the support of his activity from Laura, 9-year-old Hannah, 4-year-old Jack and soon-to-be-1-year-old Madelyn.
“I really think playing sports and being active in disability sports helps me be a better father,” Bogdan said. “It helps for my kids to see me play, and it helps me to teach my son about sports and being competitive.”
Sports were not a thought during Bogdan’s childhood. Survival was.
Bogdan was diagnosed with a neuroblastoma at 8 months old. The surgical option that Bodgan’s parents chose to remove the tumor that was wrapped around his spinal cord saved his life, but it left him an incomplete paraplegic.
From ages 3 to 22, he was periodically a patient at Shriners Children’s Hospital of Chicago for tests to confirm the cancer never returned and for follow-up surgeries to best repair the damage done to his nervous system.
Disability sports were not common during Bogdan’s childhood. The only exposure to sports participation came when Bogdan served as a mascot for a Little League team.
Bogdan went through a life-changing experience after watching the United States win the 2002 Paralympics sled hockey gold medal in Salt Lake City.
Working in the office of Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, Bogdan had a chance to be involved when the city honored the players by hosting USA Sled Hockey Day.
Paralympic gold medalist Patrick Byrne encouraged Bogdan to try the sport and remains his coach to this day with the RIC Blackhawks.
“Patrick was the one player I met who said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come out and try this,’” Bogdan said. “The first time I tried it, I was hooked.”
Now Bogdan finds himself doing the same. He said is essential for those with disabilities to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.
“I encourage anybody to come and try sled hockey,” he said. “Hopefully, they will be hooked like me, but if not, at least they tried.
“It takes a lot of determination, a lot of practice and a lot of don’t-quit attitude.”
The increase in options for disabled athletes has allowed Bogdan, in adulthood, to replace what he missed as a child. The growth is shown not just in the number of sporting options but in the number of athletes Bogdan sees each year at nationals.
“When I first came, the benches were pretty small,” he said. “You didn’t have a lot of depth. There weren’t a lot of players. And the caliber of players has changed. It really has become a fast-paced game, a much more competitive game.
“It’s great to see in my 10 years of play, how much the sport has grown.”
Bogdan, who describes himself as an old-timer in that speedy game where players propel their sleds with the same sticks they use to move the puck, said he expects sled hockey to continue to grow.
In the meantime, he is enjoying being back at the national tournament.
“The most important thing that I like coming here is the camaraderie with all those teams that you usually only get to play once a year,” Bogdan said. “You get to catch up with old friends, old teammates, people you’ve played against.”
Those teams will renew acquaintances while battling through Sunday for the USA Hockey National Sled Championship.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.