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 Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - sradley@thes­pec.com 905-526-2440 | @radley­atthes­pec Spec­ta­tor columnist Scott Radley hosts The Scott Radley Show weeknights from 7-9 on 900CHML

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.

SCOTT RADLEY

CATHIE COW­ARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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