As the puck slid slowly toward his own goal, Anton Smith realized he was his team's last line of defense.
Pumping his arms with one quick stride after another, he barreled down as it stopped 12 inches short of its destination.
A couple of opponents raced to poke the loose puck into the unprotected net, but they arrived too late. Diving head-first and extending his stick forward, Smith slapped it away in dramatic fashion.
And that's not easy to do while sitting on a sled.
On May 15, Smith was among a half-dozen players testing their skills and interest at Paralympic Sport Metrolina's first sled hockey clinic, at Indian Trail's Extreme Ice Center. Paralympic Sport Metrolina is run by Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department's therapeutic recreation section in partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Including a biweekly schedule of general sports for middle school and high school students this spring and a sitting volleyball clinic held Saturday, sled hockey is one of several Paralympic activities that the therapeutic recreation section has initiated recently to promote activity among people with visual and physical disabilities.
Smith, 21, traveled from Henderson to participate in last week's clinic. Born with spina bifida, which forces him to walk with leg braces and crutches, Smith said he's never participated in a team sport before.
He learned of the clinic by clicking on a link posted on the Carolina Hurricanes' website. Smith has never been to a Hurricanes game in person but said he watches them on television.
"I'm testing it out," Smith said as he waited to get strapped into the 4-foot-long sled. "I hope I do like it. I actually saw sled hockey on YouTube, and I kind of related to the people playing it and wanted to try it."
Traveling as far as Smith was 7-year-old Tyler Jacoby of Raleigh. The clinic's only experienced sled hockey player, Tyler is a member of Triangle Special Hockey, a fledgling program based in Raleigh for special-needs ice hockey players and sled hockey players.
This season, Tyler was the program's only sled hockey player, so coach J.V. Cotterell let him practice with the 40-plus ice hockey players who play on skates. Tyler attended the clinic just so he could interact with other sled hockey players.
Cotterell attended and functioned as one of the clinic's directors. He let it be known that he was interested in recruiting players to bolster his team, called the Cat5 Canes.
He was joined by Norm Page of Buffalo, N.Y., a representative of USA Hockey whose job is to provide startup programs.
After about an hour's worth of shooting, passing and skating drills, Cotterell split the players into two teams for an informal scrimmage. As his father, Nick, took pictures from the rink's perimeter, 11-year-old Dominick Vasiento of Matthews scored the game's first goal. His mother, Kim, was credited with an assist by helping him steer his sticks while pushing his sled from behind.
When the game ended, Cotterell skated to the boards toward a bunch of therapeutic recreation staffers, led by clinic coordinator Jana McMullen.
"This is the last thing we're going to do," he told them. "We're going to take some penalty shots. Let's make some noise over here."
One by one, the players lined up in front of the net to push in one last goal. Coming off the ice, Anton Smith was a transformed person. No longer was he a curiosity seeker. He was a hockey player.
"I thought it was great. It was exhilarating. My adrenaline is pumping now."
When the 2010-11 sled hockey season begins in the fall, Tyler Jacoby will no longer be the Cat5 Canes' only player. Smith plans on being his teammate.