You can see video of it on the internet through various websites: near the end of a sled hockey game between the United States and Canada in May of 2009, a melee erupts after American Taylor Chace crashes into Canadian goaltender Paul Rosen. The benches clear, and after the initial surge is squelched by the referees, a player in a U.S. jersey, his number not in view, lands a clean left into the mask of a Canadian player, prompting the fight’s first aftershock. It came as no surprise to those who know him that that unnumbered player turned out to be Tim Jones, an intense competitor whose flat affect belie a fighter’s heart. Indeed, from his difficult upbringing to his physical disability and emotional issues, he has been engaged in a 22-year fight to contain and ward off his manifold demons. His face and manner evince this struggle, albeit in a somewhat muted fashion. His almost ubiquitously horizontal lips and unthreatening yet stern countenance gives off an impression of distance. He rarely speaks more than two consecutive sentences, and a true laugh (not one of his single-shot scoffs that punctuate some statements) is seldom heard. In his own words, he “battles [his] emotions,” and hates “to show weakness.” But as this statement suggests, Tim Jones is far from devoid of emotion, regardless of how hard he tries to tell the world otherwise.
Tim was born with what he termed a mild case of spina bifida, a congenital birth defect in which the spinal cord protrudes through the spinal column, and often results in neurological disorders. Tim’s case was such that he could, with the help of braces and determination, walk: he has done so practically since birth. Tim was adopted by a white foster mother in a predominately white neighborhood in New Jersey called Mount Ephraim, where he found himself the object of racism at a very young age. While he experienced prejudice outside his home, inside of it was thankfully a different story. Tim credits his grandmother for the open-minded and accepting nature of his foster mother, a nurse, and her siblings, saying that she preached to her children “not to judge people by the color of their skin but how they are as a person.” Despite the absence of domestic racism, Tim’s family life was nevertheless a difficult one. His two siblings, Ryan, 21, and Patty, 30, are adopted and disabled as well, Ryan with a learning disability and Patty with mental retardation. On top of that, Tim was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at the age of 10, which roughly corresponded with his mother’s disclosure that he was adopted. His anger and frustration with this information was aided by his illness, and they manifested themselves in fits of rage that were so intense, the police had to be called on several occasions even though he never physically harmed members of his family. Instead, he took out his anger on inanimate objects, often punching through walls in his home, and, ultimately, on himself. Tim admitted that throughout much of his life, he swam against a seemingly never-ending current of anger, trying to cope with it as best he could, but often found himself powerless to prevent another outburst.
Sports represented an outlet. Through sports, he could channel his aggression and his anger onto the playing field, or in Tim’s case, the basketball court. Tim’s first love was basketball, and he played stand-up ball despite his disability for the better part of 9 years. It was during a basketball game that he caught the attention of local sled hockey coaches, one of whom was Norm Jones (no relation), who coached the New Jersey-based Wings of Steel team. Despite his initial reservations (“I thought they were crazy” was his response to their advances), Tim accepted their offer and began playing sled hockey at 12 years of age. Norm remembers, “You could tell pretty early on that he was something special,” and so to help him realize that potential Norm “worked him pretty hard.” Tim met another pivotal figure in his life during this process, Wings of Steel head coach Tom Brake. Throughout Tim’s tenure with the team, Tom would drive Tim to games and practices, and during those years grew to become a father figure of sorts. “Tom was my mentor,” Tim said, adding that he still turns to his old coach for advice today.
A natural athlete, Tim quickly translated his athletic ability from the basketball court onto the ice, and within a few years simply became too good for the team and the league in which they played. Tim moved on to playing with club teams across the nation, including one backed by the Chicago Blackhawks, and in the 2005-06 season, just 5 years after he played sled hockey for the first time, Tim became a member of the United States National team roster. There he met some of the greatest sled hockey players in the world, many of whom took Tim under their respective wings. Tim lists Joe Howard, Kip St. Germaine, and Lonnie Hannah as the most important figures during his first year with the team. He was particularly appreciative of the efforts of Hannah who, seeing Tim’s potential to be a great forward, moved himself from forward to defenseman so as to make room for Tim and make possible his growth as a player. As Hannah predicted, Tim flourished as a forward, and allowed his speed—the strongest part of his game—to shine through. Many consider him to be the fastest player on the team, meaning that he may be the fastest sled hockey player in the world.
The ice has served as a refuge for Tim, who still feels self-conscious of his disability when he is off of it, saying “I hate when people stare at me when I’m walking.” While in his sled, however, he loves being the focal point, the object of both adulation from fans and disdain from opponents. “I like to play on the edge,” Tim said, and it is clear that while speed is certainly his greatest strength, it is his toughness and intensity that defines him as a player. Unlike so many of us who suffer a drop in performance when angered, Tim seems that rare breed who is actually better when made mad, when he is feeding off the emotions that led him into so much trouble earlier in his life, channeling them onto the ice and into the game. And it is here that sled hockey has made its greatest impact on Tim’s life, for in concentrating his intensity, his aggression, his pain on the sport, he has learned to cope with his past and to deal with his emotions without having to suppress or battle against them. The rules of sled hockey required control, so by handling his emotions on the ice, he soon learned how to manage them off of it as well. “[Sled] hockey has taught me discipline,” he said, and realizes that he has become “more mature” thanks to his years of experience on the ice. In short, sled hockey made it possible for him to use his emotions, instead of merely being at the behest of them.
In saying this, it must be said that Tim still battles with his problems, but thanks to sled hockey and its cumulative effect on all aspects of his life, he seems to have his issues under control. He told me that he prays to his now-deceased grandmother in moments of indecision, so that he does not act impulsively and “do something stupid.” He recognizes his love for mother and his family, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. He said that over the past few years, he has welcomed God back into his life, a presence that he admittedly neglected during his most troubled years. This too has contributed to a more contemplative, less rash person. He is now a part-time coach with the Wings of Steel, back where it all began. If not a completely changed man, Tim is certainly a grown one. “Without hockey,” he acknowledged, “I wouldn’t be the person I am today.” And when asked if, after all of his troubles, trials, and tribulations, he is proud of the person he sees in the mirror nowadays, he paused, and then stated with his trademark deliberateness, “Before [hockey], I would say no. But now, yes, I am.”
For more coverage of the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, please visit www.WheelchairSportsFederation.org.