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Athens athlete glides to his goal
John Mollica has never known what it feels like to glide across a sheet of ice on his own two feet. But at just 16 years old, he is one of the most accomplished athletes in the region.
Mollica, a sophomore at Athens High School, is a member of the U.S. National Developmental Sled Hockey team. As a member of the national squad, he has already had the opportunity to represent his country at ice rinks across North America.
When he was only 1 year old, Mollica needed surgery to remove a tumor from his spinal cord. The procedure successfully eliminated the tumor but left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Mollica had tried a wide array of sports in the past and had never followed “stand-up” hockey, let alone sled hockey.
Still, his parents, Dawn and Andrew Mollica, encouraged him to give the sport a try eight years ago at a clinic for the disabled in Columbus.
“I was really hesitant at first,” John Mollica said, “but as soon as I got in the sled, I loved it from the first moment.
“It was a contact sport.”
Sled hockey is played almost identically to ice hockey with a few notable changes. Instead of skates, players sit down and are strapped into metal sleds with blades on the bottom. The athletes use two sticks with sharp picks on the ends to dig into the ice and propel them across the rink.
There were no sled hockey teams in the state when Mollica began playing after Christmas 2002. His father helped found the nonprofit Ohio Sled Hockey and a youth team called the Ohio Blades. Coach Mike Fenster said that, even with little background or experience in the game, Mollica took to it immediately.
“He was a player who, from the onset, was leaps and bounds beyond the level of play of the other kids,” Fenster said. “From a coaching standpoint, it was difficult to challenge him in drills with no one at his level.”
Mollica took it upon himself to train outside the team’s practices in Columbus.
Until this year, he had practiced before sunrise at Bird Arena on school days. He would put his sled on a balancing ball to build up core strength and to hone his stickhandling skills by batting around a tennis ball while watching TV.
“You have to be ambidextrous to play at the higher levels,” Mollica said. “That’s one of the big things the USA scouts and coaches want.”
Three years ago, Mollica and a pair of his Blades teammates were invited to Rochester, N.Y., to attend a sled hockey developmental camp hosted by USA Hockey. He was only 13 at the time, and he said he was shocked and honored to receive an invitation.
“It was so intimidating,” Mollica said. “I was probably the smallest guy, and there were all these huge guys skating around me.
“But once I got the hang of it, I got more confident. And when you get confidence, you obviously play better.”
To Mollica’s surprise, after the camp ended, the coaches asked him to stick around with a select group of players to try out for the National Developmental Team. He said he had low expectations heading into the tryout, but by its end, the team’s captain took him aside personally to break the news.
“He told me, ‘Hey, I think you’re going to be on the team. I have a say in who’s on it,’” Mollica said. “I didn’t really believe him — I thought he was making it up — but then I got the email a couple weeks later, and I was just in awe.”
Since then, Mollica has had the opportunity to travel throughout the U.S. and Canada playing tournaments with the National Developmental Team along with his new adult club team, Ohio United. He said he missed more than 20 days of school this season alone, which ended in mid-March.
Nowadays, Mollica has the chance to enjoy being just a high school kid, but he said hockey never strays far from his mind. The national development camp is less than two months away, and he has big plans following the camp.
“Afterwards, they have the actual men’s USA tryouts for the ‘big boy’ team,” Mollica said. “I’m going to be trying out for that for the first time this year.”
Mollica missed the chance to play an exhibition with Team USA during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics because of a staph infection. But if he’s able to make the team this summer, Southeast Ohio might be represented in Sochi, Russia during the 2014 Paralympic Games.
Fifteen years after his surgery — and only eight years after he first got in a sled — Mollica is on the cusp of reaching the apex of his sport.