Never say never

Alyssa found purpose, pride, and possibility with the help of a donor-supported agency

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There’s an unmistakable twinkle in Alyssa’s eye when she talks about hockey. Her voice becomes animated, her face lights up with a joy so palpable you can feel it from across a room.

“It’s amazing—the competitiveness and contact and being part of a team,” Alyssa gushes.

Four years ago, when she was 13, Alyssa discovered the sport at a summer camp offered by Manitoba Possible, a donor-supported agency. The moment she glided onto the ice for the first time, Alyssa fell in love immediately.

Yet hockey became so much more than a recreational activity to Alyssa. For her, it’s home—a place she’s found community and belonging.

Born with a condition limiting her lower body mobility, Alyssa uses a wheelchair every day. On the ice, she sits on a double-blade sled and uses two sticks for pushing herself and shooting. It’s an alternative way to unite athletes of all abilities in Canada’s favourite sport.

At only 17, Alyssa is breaking barriers and chasing her dreams.

“As someone with a disability, I go from being different from everybody at school to sledge hockey, where everyone has a disability,” Alyssa explains. “It’s like you’re all on the same playing field.”

Full and equal participation—that’s the spirit behind Manitoba Possible’s sledge hockey program. And with the generosity of United Way Winnipeg donors, the sport is not only socially inclusive but financially, too.

“We never want cost to be a barrier for families,” remarks Jaylene Irwin, who manages Manitoba Possible’s recreation programs. “That’s why we provide athletes with equipment and keep registration fees low, so everyone can play.”

“It’s like you’re all on the same playing field.”

For a decade, Jaylene has watched hundreds of Manitobans with disabilities become more confident, gain independence, and build mental and physical strength through the sledge hockey program. But it’s not every day she sees an athlete grow quite as quickly as Alyssa.

“As soon as she got into a sled, Alyssa showed natural talent,” Jaylene observes. “Our coaches recognized her skill right away and knew she’d go far.”

How far, exactly? Just one year after she picked up a hockey stick, Alyssa went on to play at the national level with the Canadian Women’s Para Ice Hockey Team—at only 14 years old.

“I’m a very competitive person,” Alyssa laughs. “I push myself pretty hard and have high standards for myself.”

“Everyone has their own challenges,” said Alyssa. “I just have a different way of doing things. I don’t walk, I wheel.”

About 40% of Manitobans with disabilities are unemployed.

Alyssa’s grit and ambition serve her well outside of the hockey rink, too. Last year, she achieved her goal of finding employment at 16 by landing a part-time job with Manitoba Possible, which hires staff with lived experience wherever possible.

“I wanted this job so badly,” Alyssa declares. “I know there’s higher unemployment for people with disabilities, so it was exciting to get a job—especially at such a young age.”

Over the summer, she joined the agency’s recreation team as a one-on-one support worker for kids with physical and neurological disabilities. When fall arrived, Alyssa transitioned to helping coach Manitoba Possible’s novice sledge hockey team.

By gaining such valuable employment experience, Alyssa feels she’s setting herself up for a bright future. And it’s rewarding work, too.

“I’ve learned so many skills as an athlete through this program, so it feels like I’m paying it forward,” explained Alyssa. “And everything I’m learning will help me in my dream job someday.”

“It's a huge honour to be part of the community at Manitoba Possible,” said Alyssa.

Now 17, Alyssa has big plans for her future. She wants to become a veterinarian, a hockey coach, and a professional sledge hockey player.

“My goal is to go to the Paralympics,” Alyssa stated confidently but with a hint of frustration. After all, going to the Paralympics would require breaking yet another barrier: the gender gap.

Currently, only men’s teams can participate in the Paralympics—a reality Alyssa finds perplexing. But as a tenacious teen, she isn’t easily dissuaded. Instead, she’s using her voice for change.

“A huge part of my life is advocating for females and getting the word out,” explained Alyssa, highlighting the grassroots efforts to recognize and grow women’s sledge hockey. “So far, we’re out of the running for the 2026 Paralympics, but our goal is 2030.”

Alyssa envisions a more accessible and equitable society beyond hockey, too. She wants to see more barrier-free buildings and clearer sidewalks, especially in winter. Most of all, she wants people with disabilities to be seen for more than their differences.

“There shouldn’t be stigma around having a disability,” said Alyssa. “Ultimately, we’re out here living our lives just as much as anyone.”

Help change lives like Alyssa’s in Winnipeg now.

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Katie BergmanAlyssa