Friday, January 27, 2006 Special: The Road to Riga

The following story was published at in 2006 and had been archived until the site was redesigned mid-2007. It can no longer be found at

By Jim Dwyer
Jan. 23, 2006
Special to

The road to Riga is rough, but if you're a backup amputee goalie who might enjoy some fun in Latvia's capital city, the American Amputee Hockey Association (AAHA) may have a spot for you at next year's International Standing Ice Hockey Federation (ISIHF) Championships.

Unless you are, or know, a hockey player born without an arm or a legor who lost a limb in an accidentyou probably haven't heard of the AAHA's upcoming international competition or the organization's quest to participate in an official Paralympic sport.

International competitions are ambitious milestones on the AAHA road map, but if you believe life is more about the journey than the destination, here's a glimpse of the path one amputee has traveled.

Twenty-five years ago, Dave Chandonnet was driving along Boston's Route 128. Chandonnet kept pace with Pintos, El Caminos, and Gremlins along the popular inner beltway, but stopped to assist a driver who had pulled to the shoulder. A careless motorist then slammed into Chandonnet, severing his leg.

"After I lost my leg," Chandonnet recalled, "I made up my mind I was going to do everything I did before."

He did just that, learning to ski on one leg, play basketball in a wheelchair and skate with a prosthetic leg.

As a result, Chandonnet and the AAHA, which was founded in June 2000, were made for each other.

The AAHAthe brainchild of Tufts School of Medicine's Mark Pitkin, New England Sinai Hospital and Rehabilitation Center's Dr. David Crandall and Dr. David Bennettbegan as a vehicle to promote the proliferation of amputee hockey and to recruit a United States team to play hockey in the Paralympics.

In January 2001, Chandonnet played in AAHA's first game, against a Canadian squad. The Americans lost, which just gave the amputees another reason to keep coming back to the rink.

Two years into his AAHA career, Chandonnet realized the amputee game belonged to faster, stronger and younger men and women, so he focused his efforts on helping that crowd. As a result, he switched roles from player to team manager.

In 2004, Team USA's roster boasted Paul Martin, a fierce competitor of whom Chandonnet said, "When he's on the ice, he's 'Mr. Hustle.'" Another acclaimed amputee athlete and tough competitor on that team was goalie Mike Ginal, a 2000 Harvard graduate who became the first amputee to play in a Division I college hockey game.

Chandonnet was hopeful these two players could help the Stars and Stripes defeat Canada in an international competition, a feat the team did accomplish earlier this year when Team USA beat Team Canada in the Alberta Centennial tournament.

Recently, the AAHA held an open selection camp in Hartford, Conn., where, among the 40-plus players attending camp, were 35 with whom Chandonnet was familiar -- including former second-string goalie Mike Ignatowsky -- and five newcomers.

Chandonnet says the group that assembled in Hartford was talented, and added, "You'd want to see [that there were] artificial limbs to believe me." Players can skate backward, cross over and fire shots that surprise able-bodied opponents.

Chandonnet and his coaches will tell you the most difficult part of their job is the selection process.

"It's always toughtake any sportto cut people. You don't want to squelch their enthusiasm," said Chandonnet.

Coaches encouraged those who didn’t make the cut to return to their teams and to try out for the 2007 team.

Those who made the squad also returned to their hometown teams, but will reconvene in Minnesota in March to train for May's ISIHF Championship in Riga. There, they'll face off against teams from Latvia, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and, of course, Canada.

If Team USA comes home with the gold medal, the AAHA will reach yet another milestone.

International victory is a lofty and admirable goal, but too much focus on results may cloud the benefits the trip itself provides: camaraderie, competition, and self-discovery. The joy of hockey still remains in the journey.