Last May, I graduated from the U of M with a degree in industrial design. As a hockey player, I knew I wanted to tie my love and experience of the game into whatever I ended up working on for my senior capstone project. And as a designer who cares about people and addressing their needs, I knew that I wanted to focus on a community within the hockey world that has not had its frustrations heard or its needs met.
That’s where sled hockey came in. Invented in the 1960s at a Swedish rehabilitation center, the sport was created to give players with physical disabilities a chance to play by sitting on top of specially designed sleds that are attached to two hockey skate blades.
Because I like to approach design with as much empathy and curiosity as possible, I decided to conduct some ethnographic research to see what I could learn. The first few times I watched a sled hockey practice at the TRIA Rink in St. Paul, I started to pick up on a pattern that I hadn’t previously understood. After the Zamboni finished resurfacing and the ice was ready for the players, I saw a mass of people head to the rink entrance. Then I saw volunteers start to drag the players (in their sleds) up to the rink entrance and lift them over the lip/divider, repeating that process for every single player. I realized that hockey infrastructure was not built for people with disabilities, and that I could (and should) try to contribute to a solution.
From that point on, I worked to address accessibility issues that these players face when they’re getting on and off the ice. Not wanting to exploit an already vulnerable community, I reached out to the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association to see if I could volunteer at practices. I was fortunate enough to be welcomed by the association, and got to see firsthand not only how frustrating the process is to get on and off the ice, but also how it doesn’t allow the players to be independent. There’s also a physical toll on parents, coaches, and volunteers who help at the ramp entrance.
As part of my project, I developed “looks-like” and “works-like” prototypes and brought them to practices to get feedback from players and parents. The works-like prototypes, if not the prettiest things in the world, allowed players to get from where they put their gear on to the rink entrance and onto the ice by themselves. The players and parents loved what they saw and appreciated how much easier it was.
This invention, called The Assist, is in its early prototyping phase and has gotten recognition from the University of Minnesota—both in the form of a grant to continue prototyping, as well as an award for the best beta prototype through the U of M’s Minnesota Innovation Corps MVP Challenge. To raise money to continue this effort, I started a Kickstarter campaign where I’m hoping to raise at least $5,000 to consult with engineers, develop a larger scale manufacturing plan, and bring The Assist closer to reality.
A player once told me that for folks with disabilities, “this would allow for so much more independence, and sled hockey can be used to teach independence in life.” With that in mind, in five years I hope to see this product helping players across the globe feel more empowered in their bodies—not just when they are getting onto the rink, but in every facet of their life.
Erik Jamison-Ekeling (B.S. ’22) is Twin Cities based industrial designer.