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Saturday, August 2, 2014

A little local disabled hockey history

Show of hands: How many of you knew that San Bernardino actually had its own professional hockey team once? And how many of you knew that one of their players might have been the first amputee hockey player in the United States? All of this was new to us until a couple of months ago. While it's not sled hockey, it's a very interesting story that we would like to share with you for inspiration.

Above: Ralph Diminyatz skating for the San Bernardino Shamrocks, from an article in the San Bernardino Daily Sun, Jan. 14, 1955. His right leg is the wooden one.

The Diminyatz brothers, David, Larry and Ralph, grew up on their parents' farm in the tiny town of Rouleau, Saskatchewan, Canada. (If you've ever seen the comedy "Corner Gas" on public television, Rouleau is its filming location.) One day, when Ralph was about 1 1/2 years old, he managed to toddle out to the field where one of his brothers was running a small harvester. The brother didn't see little Ralph until it was too late. The harvester ran over Ralph and cleanly severed his right leg above the knee. He was rushed to the hospital, where it was found that he had no other major injuries. They fixed up the stump of his leg and sent him home several days later.

Resourceful little Ralph figured out how to hop on one leg until he was able to get his first wooden prosthetic at the age of two. Once he got used to the feel of it, he learned to walk almost as well as anyone else. He had been so little at the time of the accident, he barely had any experience walking anyway. In time he learned to skate, obviously a major pastime in frozen Saskatchewan, and then learned to play hockey, tennis and golf alongside his brothers and friends.

In the early 1950s Larry and Ralph decided to head for medical school in California. They got their visas in order and enrolled at La Sierra College, now part of La Sierra University in Riverside. It was a feeder school for the College of Medical Evangelists program at Loma Linda, the brothers' eventual goal.

Shortly after they got to town, the brothers learned about a hockey team in the city of San Bernardino, about 25 miles away from La Sierra. The San Bernardino Shamrocks played in the California Hockey League at the Orange Show's Swing Auditorium. It was about as low-level as "professional hockey" could get, with the players making about ten dollars per game. But they missed being able to play hockey, so they decided to try out for the team in the winter of 1954.

At the first practice, coach Bill Gray was impressed at the speed and skill of the two potential defensemen from Canada. They obviously knew the sport backwards and forwards, and they were better than some of the veterans on the SoCal circuit.

During a scrimmage, Ralph Diminyatz collided with another player and they both fell to the ice. The other player stood right up and skated away, while Ralph got up with an odd rolling motion. Bill Gray commented to Larry Diminyatz about it, wondering whether Ralph might have been hurt. Larry replied, "You'd get up funny, too, if you only had one leg." Coach Gray was astonished, as he hadn't even realized Ralph had a wooden leg.

Ralph became a brief sensation as an AP article about him ran in newspapers around the country. The Diminyatz brothers gave it their all during the season, which turned out to be the Shamrocks' last due to economic concerns. They won most of their games except those against their arch-rivals, the Pasadena Maple Leafs.

Above: On the far right, Ralph Diminyatz supports his teammates during a game vs. the Long Beach Hornets. From The Sun, Feb. 17, 1955.

The brothers went on to finish medical school, and unfortunately never had another chance to play pro hockey. Ralph became an anesthesiologist and enjoyed a five-decade career. He retired at the end of 2013, at the age of 84. He promises to attend a Kings sled hockey game someday, although it's unlikely we'll get him into a sled!