Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hockey Game Scores Win for Prosthetics

ST. PETERSBURG -- The game lasted all of 10 minutes, but that was long enough for Alexei Balakhontsev, captain of the national hockey team, to chip off half a tooth.

And if Balakhontsev is not a name you heard during the 2000 World Hockey Championship, that's because the Russian team in question is not the one loaded with NHL superstars who made an untimely exit from the tournament, but the one defying U.S. doctors who said people with prosthetic limbs couldn't play hockey.

Balakhontsev is the captain of the St. Petersburg Elks, a team of hockey enthusiasts on prosthetic limbs who battled with counterparts from the United States at the new Ice Palace on May 10. The players apparently paid no attention to what others might see as a major disability, and although the game finished as a 0-0 tie, it was certainly a hard-fought contest.

The game came about thanks to the efforts of an international program linking experts on prosthetic technology and surgery from St. Petersburg and the United States, and headed by native-born Mark Pitkin, a research professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

"This hockey game was a truly remarkable event that vividly demonstrated to the world the courage and the enormous potential of people who are called disabled," said Pitkin after the contest.

The match was only part of a wider program aimed at helping survivors of land-mine explosions around the world, uniting U.S. prosthetic technology with the surgical expertise of doctors at the St. Petersburg International Institute for the Prosthetic Rehabilitation of Land-Mine Survivors.

"The hockey players are helping to highlight the rehabilitative needs of land-mine victims worldwide, since sports skating for people who have undergone the amputation of lower limbs is complicated from both the technical and emotional points of view," Pitkin said.

"I felt great after the game," said Rusty Weatherhead, 52, a member of the U.S. team. "I think everyone was a winner, and people in the audience had their eyes opened up a little bit as to what people can do with a disability."

Both Weatherhead and Balakhontsev are land-mine victims: The American lost a leg in the Vietnam War, while the Russian suffered the same fate in Afghanistan in 1985.

"I never really gave up," said Balakhontsev, 35. "During the very first days after the explosion [when I lost my leg], I tried to visualize how I would walk again, and couldn't imagine it. I'd always been pretty active, I used to like riding my motorbike. ... But I left the hospital, got my prosthetic limb, made the first steps and rode a bicycle for the first time last summer."

The St. Petersburg Elks - so named in honor of the Hockey Championship mascot - were founded in September 1999, the first hockey team of its kind. The players are mostly Afghan War veterans, with artificial limbs fitted by the St. Petersburg Prosthetics Institute.

Now, the team relies almost exclusively on foreign sponsors. Most recently, the U.S.-based Ohio Willow Wood Company has agreed to donate several of its Free-Flow rolling-joint feet, developed by Pitkin, to equip all of the Elks.

The U.S. team was established only this winter, and by joining it, Weatherhead got his first game of hockey in 25 years. "It was a bit shaky at first," he said, "but we are all making visible progress with every game."

"The match was a triumph of the human spirit," said David Crandell, a psychiatrist at the New England Sinai Hospital in Massachusetts - one of the main sponsors of the program - and a physician with the U. S. Olympic Committee. "All the players from both teams regard each other as comrades."

"The rehabilitation of a land-mine survivor is a complex process, starting with straight medical problems and taking in psychological therapy and [learning how to] adapt socially," said Konstantin Shcherbina, head of the lower limb department at the St. Petersburg Prosthetics Institute. "We were the people for the job."

Hockey was chosen not just because the World Championship was a good showcase for the prosthetics program. At a convention last year on the rehabilitation of land-mine victims, some U.S. doctors voiced the opinion that a person with a prosthetic limb would be unable to play. Prosthetics specialists immediately took up the challenge. Now, the organizers and participants of the game have two main goals.

The first is to get more people with prosthetic limbs to join them.

"At the moment there are only five of us on the Elks team," said Balakhontsev. "We often play in the evening with ordinary people who come to the Spartak ice rink. ... It would be nice to see more people [with prosthetics] joining us, regardless of age. We know how important it is to have a goal."

The second is to get this type of event recognized as an official sport at the ParaOlympic Games, and Pitkin pointed out that the presence of International Olympic Federation officials at the event would help this goal.

Anyone interested in contacting the St. Petersburg Elks may contact Alexei Balakhontsev at (7-812) 307-52-68.