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Sledge Hammerer

author: Roger Thomas

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One man in Peterborough makes parasport dreams come true  – in Canada and around the world.

In a childrens’ hospital clinic in Peterborough about 30 years ago, Laurie Howlett sat waiting for a diagnosis for his young son. Chad, age six, had been singled out by a sharp-eyed teacher as perhaps having a learning disability. As the minutes ticked by, Laurie observed kids in wheelchairs trying to play with the toys in the waiting room. Their fascination with these toys sparked tinder in his brain, a tinder that flamed into an idea: He was good with metal – handy in fact. He could tinker with ideas and metal in his shop and he would fashion play things for children who couldn’t use conventional toys. “I started out with a hacksaw and a stick welder in my garage,” he says, with characteristic humility.

There are vast differences in the roads that we take to find personal fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment. Some of us follow prescribed and conventional routes, and then there are those who rise above to levels without boundaries. Driven and fearless, they use their strengths, talent, intuition and imagination to simply make the world better, shattering paradigms along the way. Laurie Howlett is one such person – an inventor, father, visionary, CEO, family man and chief engineer of a successful company built entirely from his sweat, ideas, compassion and selfless desire to improve people’s lives.

The journey began when he and his wife Julie learned of their son’s dyslexia. For Laurie, a great mystery was solved when Chad was diagnosed. Laurie realized he, too, was dyslexic. In his mid-twenties, he finally knew why he was different.

His early school years had been difficult; he was labelled as lazy. His teachers told his parents that he had abilities but just wasn’t applying himself. In fact he wasn’t lazy at all. Printed words appeared to him as a jumbled mixture of letters. He had to memorize each word as he couldn’t process the text on a printed page. Writing or composing sentences was out of the question. He failed Grade three. As his friends and classmates moved onto the next grade, the bitterness of being left behind slashed deep. Then and there, Laurie vowed he would never fail again at anything “no matter what the cost!” He struggled through school by listening rather than reading.

Laurie’s inherent strength and determination prevailed as a young adult. “The job market was a challenge,” he relates. “I couldn’t fill out job applications on the spot, and unless I could take the application home, I was done.

"He started working as an ad-hoc mechanic in a local motorcycle shop, then as an auto-parts clerk and eventually ended up at General Electric in Peterborough working in structural steel.

After Chad’s diagnosis, Laurie researched the affliction and soon realized that many dyslexics are creative and artistic. He fit the mold perfectly. “Some people look at a pile of tubing and channel iron as steel; I look at it as an opportunity to improve someone’s life,” he says.

A hand-propelled tricycle was one of the first prototypes to emerge from his garage, and a young neighbour who was paraplegic volunteered to test it out. She eventually managed to propel herself around her driveway and immediately began yelling to the kids playing nearby,“Look at me, look at me!”

“I knew right then that I had to do better and give these kids the chance to have fun just like the rest of the world,” Laurie tells me.

And so Unique Inventions Incorporated was born. Amidst various toys and inventions, including a bike trailer, Laurie turned his attention to building ice hockey sledges. Thirty-odd years and many prototypes later, Unique Inventions Inc. manufactures ice hockey sledges and markets them worldwide. The Canadian and American Paralympic teams are outfitted with sledges from Laurie’s 3000 square foot shop in Peterborough.

UNIQUE INVENTIONS INC.

Across an ice-packed parking lot surrounded by mountains of banked snow is a small door in an industrial complex. One knock and Heather the operations manager of Unique Inventions answers with a friendly greeting. Seconds later Laurie emerges into the narrow hallway. Initially shy and somewhat hesitant, his eyes begin to sparkle with pleasure and pride as we begin a tour of each manufacturing station and review the processes involved. He has created an adjustable test model so he can tailor fit each sledge, accommodating it to the age, weight and stature of its owner.

Once he’s gathered the necessary particulars, the manufacturing begins for that unique sledge. Laurie has modified and fitted every operation and machine in his shop to his standards and needs. He has his own plastic-injection-molding machine to make the buckets the players sit in, as well as the leg protectors. There are welding stations, paint booths, cut-off saws, pipe-bending machines and assembly benches, all divided by racks. The hallways are strewn with dust-covered aluminum tubing, plastic molds, drill presses and prototypes reaching to the ceiling.

Each machine and station is designed, crafted and tweaked by him to ensure the highest quality in every step of the process (The sledges, by the way, run about $700). The man is an engineering genius, and the glint in his eyes mirrors the creative magic in his heart.

RINK RATS

Vicky Hillyer has the same sparkle in her eyes. The 24-year-old plays sledge hockey for the Northumberland Predators and is the spokesperson for the sledge hockey events in the upcoming Ontario ParaSport Games, hosted for the first time by Northumberland County and running from May 30th to June 1st.

Vicky has spastic cerebral palsy – one-third of her brain does not function – yet she is articulate and bubbles with enthusiasm about her team, her sport and the upcoming games. “I want to raise awareness for parasports as a whole because I don’t think enough people know about it,” she says.

On a cold grey February morning, sounds of hockey echo from the Bewdley arena. The brown slush in the parking lot is lined with wheelchair tracks that lead to the main doors and continue in muddy strips across the foyer – it is hockey practice for the Predators. The hallway has the odd wheelchair folded and tucked against the wall.

Debbie Hillyer, Vicky’s mom and co-founder of the team, is busy at the doorway helping players into their sledges and onto the ice. Her husband Keith coaches the team. He awkwardly skates over and quickly grabs the boards to remain upright.

“I’m a Brit, we don’t skate like Canadians,” he jokes.

It’s in arenas such as this across the country that the great Canadian hockey dream begins, but the Hillyers seek neither fame nor glory. They just want to develop the strength and talents of their players to be the best they can be and mould their skills into a competitive hockey team. They’ve only been at it since the fall of 2009, but the team has come a long way.

“We promoted the team concept right from the beginning,” says Debbie. If a player is down because of an on-ice mistake or has a bad game, Debbie reminds them of the acronym TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.

“The Northumberland Predators is no longer a sledge hockey club, it’s now a family,” she says. Her words are echoed by team captain Ted Farrell: “Camaraderie and willingness to help each other keep this team together. Two years ago we won silver at the all-Ontario Championships. Last year we brought the gold medal home!”

The concept of helping each other is manifested during the February practice, as Brett LeBlanc scoots about on his sledge listening to instructions from his teammates and father, who skates beside him. They shout out puck positions and strategies in a whirlwind of excited jabber and then suddenly Brett has the puck, and fires a pass across the ice to the cheers and delight of everyone.

Not much of a feat you might say, but Brett, age 17, is blind. During competitions, Brett’s dad is not allowed on ice but he relays information from the seats to his son via a two-way radio tucked in his breast pocket. “He almost scored a goal in the London tournament,” says Ted Farrell, and you can take from that heartfelt comment that no gold medal or accolade will mean more to the Northumberland Predators than Brett’s first goal.

“Disabled is a word I don’t use,” says Debbie Hillyer. “These people are not disabled, they are differently abled.”

Walking out of the arena one is smacked full in the face with a good dose of humility. Laurie Howlett perhaps summed it up best when he reflected on the day he left the hopsital clinic with Chad: “Those kids motivated me. We have so much we can learn from them. I was barely able to read and I couldn’t spell, but I realized what a great opportunity I had been given to make a difference in their lives and I wasn’t going to take it for granted. I could give them joy just like all the educated people in that clinic.”

Beginning May 30 Northumberland County is privileged to host the Ontario ParaSports Games at venues across the county. With the games come teams of athletes, support people, families and volunteers who carry with them a pure and different perspective on abilities and competition.

To be sure, there will be no scouts, no potential for multi-million dollar contracts and no advertising deals. But the opportunity to showcase their sport, spirit and athletic talents is reward enough; they ask for nothing more than an audience to cheer them on. You can bet Laurie Howlett will be there, and in the parking lot attached to his ancient GMC diesel pickup will be a trailer full of every imaginable sledge hockey part and the tools necessary for repairs – just in case.

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