Defenseman Trent Hines of the Tier II Junior A Northern Colorado Eagles, left, gives sled hockey a try in joint
practice with the Warrior Avs at the Ice Haus. That’s the coach and the star of the Warrior Avs, Army veteran Jerry
DeVaul, swooping in to control the puck. (Joshua Polson)
Trent Hines, a 20-year-old defenseman for the Northern Colorado Eagles, gave
up trying to extricate himself from the hockey sled on the rink at the Ice Haus.
“Hey, Jason, come here!” he yelled at his cousin. “I
need help. How do I get out of this thing?”
Warrior Avs goalie Kevin Brininger rolls his wheelchair by all the Northern Colorado Eagles as the teams prepare
to go on the ice for a joint sled-hockey practice at the Greeley Ice Haus. (Joshua Polson )
His cousin, Jason Brininger, came over to the
bench area, pulled a few straps, and Hines was able to get off the sled and stand.
This was after the Eagles, the Tier II Junior A team relocated from Windsor
to Greeley for this season, recently were fitted on sleds and shared their practice ice with the Warrior Avs sled hockey team
for a spirited hour-long scrimmage.
The Eagles open their first Western States Hockey League regular-season in Greeley with a pair of home games
against the Cheyenne Stampede next weekend at the Ice Haus, 900 8th Ave. The rivals meet at 3:45 p.m. Saturday and at noon
After the session
with the Warrior Avs, Hines, 20, had a new appreciation for what members of the sled hockey team go through to play the sport.
The Eagles were destined to be sore the next morning after using untapped arm muscles to dig the short sticks in the ice and
push and pull themselves around.
Hines’s uncle, Kevin Brininger, 45, is a former Marine corporal who lives in Wellington and plays goalie for
the Warrior Avs, a traveling team of military service veterans that plays games and puts on sled hockey clinics for veterans
with disabilities across the state and beyond.
Just don’t ask Brininger where he served.
“I can’t really talk about that,” he said conspiratorially.
“I didn’t go to the sand. I went to the jungle. I’m waiting for the 30-year mark. After 30 years, a lot
of your stuff gets declassified. I have a few more years and then I can subpoena and get all my records back.”
A paraplegic, Brininger spends
most of his awake time in a wheelchair after being struck down in 2011 by non-hereditary Multiple Sclerosis, a disease likely
connected to his service from 1991-95.
Warrior Avs goalie Kevin Brininger watches a pair of Tier II Junior A Northern Colorado Eagles chasing the puck
in the teams’ joint practice on sleds. (Joshua Polson)
“I’m actually working through a study with the VA,” he said.
“The guys that were in when I was in, there was a 33 percent increase in non-hereditary MS. So they think it has something
to do with the overseas workups, the shots. They’ve labeled it part of the Gulf War syndrome from the early to mid-’90s.
“I suffered what was
called transverse myelitis, which is basically MS attacking the spinal cord. So I had it both in the brain and the spinal
cord. I never saw the wheelchair as a hindrance. I was in the hospital for a month and 30 days after I got out I did a half-marathon
in my wheelchair. I wasn’t going to let it defeat me.”
Brininger was raised in Phoenix and returned there after his discharge. Three years ago,
he moved to northern Colorado.
“I couldn’t take the heat anymore,” he said. “Because of some of my issues, I can’t regulate
my body temperature. Moving up here was a lifesaver, I would have to say.”
His nephew, Hines, is going into his fifth season with the Eagles —
not to be confused with the Loveland-based Colorado Eagles professional franchise that is moving up from the ECHL to the American
Hockey League and becoming the Colorado Avalanche’s top minor-league affiliate this season — and is in his final
year of junior eligibility. Brininger has been a regular at Trent’s games the past three seasons. The former Marine
started playing sled hockey in Phoenix, and this will be his eighth season in the adaptive sport.
“I was a defenseman for seven seasons,” he said. “I
was an enforcer when I was a defenseman. This is my first year in net. I switched to the net for medical reasons. I was having
some medical issues with the contact and things like that. The VA worked with me really well is getting me back out on the
ice and we decided to put me in goal.”
He called sled hockey “a lifesaver” and added, “Anything you can do out of the wheelchair
is the best thing for you. This allows us to come out here, we get our teamwork feeling back, and it’s an esprit de
corps, like when I was a Marine. … Today, we wanted these guys to experience not really what it’s like for us,
but to see it in a different way. Playing hockey from six feet high to four inches from the ice is a big difference.”
This session in Greeley was
only the second time Hines, from Fort Collins, tried sled hockey and was on the ice with his uncle.
“He’s gone through a lot in his life,”
Hines said of Brininger. “He still loves coming out here and playing. It shows us there’s no excuse not to do
Warrior Avs’ coach and top scorer Jerry DeVaul. (Terry Frei)
The Warrior Avs’ coach, organizer and best player, buzzsaw
Jerry DeVaul, lives in Colorado Springs and can drive his truck using hand controls. He arrived at the Ice Haus pulling the
team’s equipment trailer.
A native of Trinidad in the southern part of the state, DeVaul is 33. The impressive part of his game is that he has
been playing sled hockey only three years.
“It actually gave me the meaning of life again,” DeVaul said of sled hockey. “It’s given
me a purpose again. When I first lost my legs, I didn’t realize what I was going to do in life. I was kind of a lost
soul. I was damaged goods. I took over the team three years ago and I wanted to build it and build that brotherhood I had
when I was in the military.”
He served in the Army from 2003-11, spending two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and was discharged as
a staff sergeant.
lost my legs six months after I got home from Afghanistan,” he said. “I was working in a coal mine in Trinidad.
A guy hit me from behind with a machine and amputated both my legs. When that happened, I was able to apply everything I knew
from the field and I was able to give myself first aid. I applied tourniquets and took all the first-aid steps.
“I had a hard time with it because if I
would have stayed in the Army, I would have gone back to Afghanistan. So I try to look at it as if I was destined to lose
my legs, whether it was here or downrange. I was fortunate enough that my life was spared and all that was taken was my legs.”
He’s married and has
two young children. Now he has sled hockey, too.
“This is pretty much a full-time job,” he said, “coordinating our travel schedule
and trying to raise funds for the team so we can travel throughout the U.S.”
This is one team that doesn’t need to check the scoreboard. Every
time the Warrior Avs take the ice, they win.
Story on Greeley Tribune site