Hitting the ice in TV land

Managing my son’s sled hockey team has led to some of the most interesting, educational experiences of my life. Seeing the triumphs of our athletes as they overcome their various disabilities has been reward enough for a lifetime, especially watching my son develop from a chubby eight-year-old into a nationally competitive player.

The most colorful experience of late has been a TV shoot we did for ABC’s hit comedy, “Speechless”. I never saw this coming, and enduring this long, cold, fun day of mayhem taught me just how little I know about the grand illusion of television.

It started innocently enough. I read an article about Micah Fowler, the 18-year-old who plays J.J. Dimeo, eldest child of Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) and Maya Dimeo (Minnie Driver). While Micah has cerebral palsy like his character, he’s more verbally communicative and physically capable. Turns out that Micah plays sled hockey back home in New Jersey when he’s not here in SoCal filming. Hmmm.

I had no idea where Micah and his family stay while they’re on the West Coast, but I decided to invite him to practice with our L.A. Kings Sled Hockey team if he had the urge. I sent a message to his management contact to that effect. The next day Micah’s mom called back.

She said that, while they appreciated the invitation, coming out to Riverside for practices would be a 70-odd-mile trip for them and she didn’t think they could swing that drive on a regular basis. However, she said my timing was impeccable.

A day or two before I contacted them, Micah and his mom had been talking with the show’s writers and producers, discussing the idea of working sled hockey into the storyline for “Speechless”. It’s the fastest-growing Paralympic sport, one in which the U.S. holds three Paralympic gold medals and a bronze, not to mention six World Sled Hockey Challenge titles. For a show that addresses all the ups and downs of disability, it seemed like a natural idea for J.J. to try his hand at a sport. And of course, Micah wanted to go with a sport he was already familiar with.

The producers hadn’t even begun looking for a SoCal sled team when my message came through. Next thing I knew, I was on the phone with showrunner Scott Silveri, talking about the mechanics and rules of the sport. By the time I hung up, we had juggled the idea of bringing some of our Kings sledders out to the Valley to shoot footage.

Needless to say, our players were all over the idea. Not only would it be a fun (we hoped) experience, it would be more exposure for our strange little sport. So, extremely early on an October morning, twenty members of our hockey circle trudged off to unscenic Panorama City.

This wasn’t our first TV venture, but it might as well have been. A few years ago, a crew from Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls” came out to shoot at one of our practices. It was two hours of frustration, tainted by a very pushy director and my need to meet with a visiting Korean dignitary that night (my life is strange.) At least star Mia Schaikewitz was sweet and fun to work with. The footage never even aired because “Push Girls” was cancelled after two seasons, so there went that.

We hoped that this new venture would not only be more enjoyable, but would actually make it to the screen. The only one of our athletes with any serious television experience was Gybby Eusebio, who played Jimmy Smits’ disabled son in the last two seasons of “Sons of Anarchy”. The best advice his mom could give us was to be right on schedule, and then expect nothing to actually be on schedule.

Sure enough, the first thing that hit me about the production was its strict regimentation. Our slated arrival time was 5:18 AM, mostly because the food trucks were OK’d to set up at 4:55 AM, and union rules require 23 minutes between firing up the grills and actors punching the clock. (I love unions, but I knew that weird figure had to be the fruit of union negotiations.)

Our troupe included four minors who had to work with the on-site teacher for a total of 3 hours each, broken up into blocks of at least 20 minutes, no exceptions. This made for some interesting juggling of scenes, since there were several occasions when all sledders needed to be on the ice at the same time. We made it work, although my older son missed the photo shoots at the end of the day because of his history project. (Thanks, Mrs. Dawson!)

Despite the rigidity of the schedule, we knew from years of experience that all the organization in the world couldn’t make the ice comply with the director’s wishes. And that came true in spades. Thank God we had more than twelve hours of ice time booked.

That scene where J.J. gets the puck on his stick while his dad is talking to the family? I lost count at 32 takes. First the puck ended up three feet away from J.J., then it went under his sled, then behind him, then ricocheted off the wall and hit a camera dolly. At one point, Lord knows how, he actually ended up with two pucks. The hockey gods were having a field day with us.

The water boy scene took multiple runs as well. Someone ran his sled into the table and knocked over all the water bottles along with himself. John Ross Bowie shouted, “Man down!” and we all laughed through the next three takes. The “leg time out” isn’t really a thing in sled hockey, but perhaps it should be.

The most rewarding part of the script was Jimmy’s initial terror at his disabled son playing a contact sport, and watching that evolve into a deep excitement and pride of achievement. We’ve all felt it, and the writers and actors perfectly conveyed it in the end. That is why we do what we do.

My wife is a high school teacher. She plays hockey on the side, and she pushes one of our more disabled players on the ice, as Jimmy was doing with J.J. in the show. My poor spouse was on skates for the entire length of the shoot, and she was in significant pain at work the next day. But she still says she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

I was paid as a consultant for the episode, being Southern California’s guru of sled hockey. (We planted the roots for the team back in 2009 when my son couldn’t find a sport to play, and we were the first sled team in the region.) I was supposed to be on the ice as a coach in the final hockey scene, but time constraints meant that got cut from the script. Being a really shy guy, I was only sad because it meant I couldn’t wear the preposterously comfortable MSX by Michael Strahan soft-shell jacket the wardrobe lady had given me. (Seriously, go buy this jacket. It’s like a hug with pockets.)

And so it happened. We didn’t really have any interaction with the other stars of the show because they were only in the last scene at the rink. But Micah and “the notorious JRB”, as we dubbed him, were wonderful to work with, as were the enormous crew. The door was left open for us to participate again, and we’ll do so without hesitation.

The big picture is that this show gets it right. There are times when we watch it on a Wednesday evening and my wife or I will say, “Jeez, I am Maya.” The comedy aspect is well-done, brilliantly written and performed. But the heart of the show is the very real life of the special-needs family. “Speechless” nails the heartaches, the triumphs, the butterflies and belly laughs of dealing with disability on a day-by-day basis.

Sometimes J.J.’s younger brother, Ray, might as well be our younger son, Steven, because he knows about taking a back seat to his brother’s medical issues. Too often I’ve wanted to have the kind of ranting, raving blow-ups that Maya has because of people’s ignorance, biases, or thoughtlessness. This is our life, and it’s the lives of thousands of our friends, teammates, and acquaintances.

According to industry statistics, more than 4.5 million people tuned in to watch our episode of “Speechless” when it aired on December 7th. I don’t know how much of that had to do with our stumping among the disability community online, but viewership for this week’s episode jumped up to 5.4 million. A lot of sled hockey players we contacted about it were already big fans of the show, but a lot more had never watched it until then. I hope the viewership keeps climbing, not only because it’s a top-quality show that deserves a wider audience, but because it’s a darned accurate reflection of how we live.

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