Brenda St. Clair, 47, is your average beer league goaltender, with one exception…and it’s not her gender.
She has no five-hole.
St. Clair, of Danbury, Conn., has Spina Bifida, a birth defect characterized by the incomplete development of the spine. She is confined to an electric wheelchair, but that hasn’t stopped her from playing her favorite sport.
“I forget I’m in a chair when I’m playing,” she said.
About five years ago, St. Clair, a fan of the the now-defunct UHL team Danbury Trashers, was attending team practices and games regularly. Someone at the rink noticed her passion for the sport and her particular affection for goaltending. He challenged her to buy some equipment and get on the ice herself.
So St. Clair’s husband Greg took her shopping for goalie equipment and looked to “hockey-proof” the wheelchair. Knowing that the chair’s joystick and battery pack needed special protection, Greg took it to Barzetti’s Welding in Bethel, CT. With a cardboard mock up of what he knew the chair needed, Barzetti’s crew protected the chair for goaltending.
When it came time to buy gear, Brenda chose a used pair of Vaughn pads, and picked out a glove and blocker set.
“She kept telling me it was hard to close the glove because it was too big and new, and she has small hands,” said Greg St. Clair. “The first time she went on the ice, we first went to the pro shop at the rink and saw the same glove and blocker but in kid’s sizes. She tried them on and that felt a lot better.”
So she got out on the ice and started taking shots – loving every moment of it.
“It’s hard to explain. It makes me feel alive,” she said.
Another challenge was finding the right chest protector. Brenda opted for a child’s size, but it didn’t accommodate her chest, exposing her breasts to wayward pucks. After getting some bruises, Brenda’s husband went to work on her equipment again.
“We got another chest protector and took a piece off of that, and sewed it onto the other one,” he said. “So we have a Frankenstein model. It was kind of funny, we had lots of older women (at the tailor shop) trying to sew it together. Trying to push a needle through two chest protectors isn’t easy … It took hours to finish.”
Though Brenda can’t move laterally, she still uses her body and her stick to make saves. Brenda knows that she has an edge on other goaltenders when it comes to the five-hole, though she technically does have one as there is space between the bottom of her wheelchair and the ice.
While there have been times Brenda has been “lit up like a Christmas tree,” according to her husband, she chooses to focus on the quality of stops she makes instead of the number of pucks she lets in. And Brenda has stone-walled her fair share of shooters.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” she said. “Especially when they don’t expect you to make the stop.”
Goaltending has given her confidence and has helped her inspire others to get on the ice.
“Once at the rink, we saw a little girl who was afraid to go out for the first time, so I went over to her and showed her some pictures of me out there,” she said. “I said, honey, if I can do it, so can you.”
St. Clair has remained a fan of the local Danbury hockey team, now the FHL’s Danbury Whalers. When goaltender Eric Vogel, who now plays for the Southwest Pennsylvania Magic of the Federal Hockey League, found out his team’s biggest fan plays hockey in an electric wheelchair, he knew he wanted to get on the ice with her.
“When I found out, I was stunned,” he said. “Training camp had been postponed so Brenda and Greg asked if they could come down to Pennsylvania and get on the ice with me.”
Wanting to surprise her, Vogel got her a new Pad Wrap design for her pads, with a skull design to match her mask.
“When she arrived, Brenda said that her neck had been hurting her. She decided to get the gear on and get on the ice just for a few pictures with me,” said Vogel. “But when she saw the Pad Wrap, she wanted me to put it on for her right then and there. As soon as she got on the ice she decided to have a couple of guys shoot on her. Before we knew it…she was playing in her first scrimmage. She was just so thrilled that she had played.”
Vogel said watching someone follow their dreams despite overwhelming obstacles has inspired him.
“She’s my ultimate hero,” he said.
Witnessing Brenda and Greg’s relationship was also a special moment for him, Vogel said.
“Watching Greg help Brenda put on the goalie gear and different attachments for the electric wheelchair was heartwarming,” he said. “You can tell they love each other very much.”
During that scrimmage, Vogel said Brenda made some outstanding saves.
“I do remember she had an awesome glove save,” he said. “All the guys on the ice were inspired by her. They kept talking to her in between breaks and asking her all sorts of questions. After the scrimmage, she told me that was her first time ever playing in a scrimmage. She’d had people shoot on her before but nothing like this.”
Vogel was just as touched by the experience as Brenda was.
“I have coached before but just watching the sheer determination and heart that Brenda exhibited on and off the ice really brought tears to my eyes,” he said.