Firmly in her grasp
A young Hamilton goalie faces an interesting challenge: How do you stop a puck when you can’t hang on to the stick?
The fact that she’s a pretty good soccer player makes all the sense in the world for reasons that will quickly become evident. The fact that she’s a pretty good hockey goalie as well, though? That’s a bit tougher to grasp.
Which seems like a perfect way to begin telling Eva McCurlie’s story. Because ‘tough to grasp’ is pretty much the launching point.
Ask anyone who’s had the task of being a little different and they’ll almost certainly tell you it’s not always easy. It hasn’t been without challenges for Eva. Not being able to do up buttons on her shirt is one thing. Struggling to write is another. But more uncomfortable than any physical challenge were the stares. The long looks at her right hand that lingered a little too long.
“Normally I’d just put it in my pocket or tuck it in my shirt sleeve,” the 11-year-old says.
But even that paled in comparison to the hockey problem.
A couple years ago, the Ryerson Elementary School student caught the hockey bug from an aunt who loved the game. The athletic girl soon decided she wanted to play. And after taking a whirl as a forward, Eva announced she wanted to be a goalie.
Enter the problem. How do you play a position that requires you to hold a stick with a hand that’s not built for the task?
The 11-year-old was born with something called Poland Syndrome. It’s a condition that causes some part of a body to be underdeveloped at birth. In her case, her right hand. It’s always been about half the size of the other and her fingers are missing the middle knuckle. In the family, they endearingly call it her little fin.
When she first pulled on the pads, she tried grasping the stick the usual way but it didn’t go particularly well. Her tiny fingers couldn’t wrap around the shaft so it just kept falling.
Within a few days a family friend had tried jerry rigging a strap that held the stick to her. It did keep the stick off the ice. Except the stick still slipped out of her hand every time she stopped a shot and then it just kind of dangled there.
Mom and dad wracked their brains trying to come up with a solution because Eva was really liking this goaltending thing but the problem wasn’t going away. Then a friend suggested the Prosthetics and Orthotics department at the Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre. The folks there might be able to figure something out. Not easily, as it turns out. “This was definitely a brain teaser,” certified prosthetist Todd Waite says.
Over his five-year career, he’s come up with hundreds of solutions to even some of the trickiest scenarios. He’s created fingertips for someone who lost his so the guy could play guitar. He’s put a full arm on a man missing his entire shoulder. He’s helped people without legs walk. He’s good at this stuff.
This one though? This was tough. Night after night for three straight weeks, he lay in bed thinking about it. He asked everyone in the department for ideas. Truth is, the answer would’ve been easier if Eva had no hand at all.
“Her hand is almost one-jointed,” he says. “It’s like a pancake trying to squeeze something.”
Finally, he took a mould of her hand then started working on a thought. Not quite confident it was going to work. Maybe he could fabricate a grip she could manipulate that would also grasp the stick.
The first model was too sticky. The second was too stiff. They third didn’t have the right mixture of chemicals. The fourth was too soft. Just as his efforts were starting to sound like a modern-day retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, he nailed it.
Try No. 5 saw him produce a grip that fit into her blocker and stayed there with Velcro. She slid her hand inside it — almost like a hand in a baseball glove — and squeezed. The larger exterior of the grip then squeezed the stick. If it wasn’t the perfect solution, it sure was close.
Bauer, the equipment company, then chipped in with a custom crafted, extra light carbon fibre goalie stick that has a thinner shaft for her. It even has her last name embossed on it like the pros.
“It felt kind of incredible,” Eva says. “It felt like I had the same grip as other people.”
By the second time she used it, she had it. Now she’s not stopping. All through the summer, you can find her at the Mohawk 4 Ice Centre stopping pucks in a 3-on-3 league. Or in her backyard taking shots from a friend. Wearing the mask Bauer threw in as a gift.
Come October, the real test starts. The girl who couldn’t hold a stick not long ago will be stopping shots when it counts. Against boys. A few weeks ago she went out for tryouts for Coronation’s select team with her stick firmly in her grasp.
She made it.
Eva McCurlie, 11, uses a customized blocker when she plays.
Hockey skate and equipment maker Bauer created the custom taper shaft for Eva’s stick. The prosthetics department at the Ron Joyce Children’s Centre created the custom grip.