After John Schatzlein bought season tickets for the Minnesota Wild, he wheeled his way to his seat and immediately discovered a problem.
Metal bars in front of the area designated for people with disabilities made it nearly impossible for anyone in a wheelchair to see the action on the ice. So Schatzlein tracked down a manager and asked him to check out the view. Pretend you’re in a wheelchair, he urged, and then tell me what you see. The manager got the point; not long after, the bars were replaced with Plexiglass.
For Schatzlein, who died June 30 at age 70 of chronic illnesses related to a spinal cord injury he suffered as a teenager, making sports arenas — and sidewalks and hotels and airplanes — more accessible for people with disabilities was a lifelong mission. His unyielding commitment to accessibility helped shape the design of many of the Twin Cities’ most prominent structures and allowed thousands of U.S. athletes to compete in the sport of sled hockey.
“He wanted to experience the whole world, and he wanted everybody around him to experience the whole world,” said daughter Erica Schatzlein.
Born in Eau Claire, Wis., Schatzlein moved with his family to White Bear Lake not long before the accident that shaped the rest of his life. At 14, he fell from a tree and became paraplegic, a talented athlete who could no longer play the sports he loved. With his parents’ encouragement, Schatzlein charged forward, unwilling to let his disability keep him out of any space or sport. At Southwest State University — now Southwest Minnesota State University — Schatzlein started a wheelchair basketball team, served as the university’s first student body president and worked closely with school administrators to transform the campus into a more accommodating place for students with disabilities.
After college, Schatzlein embarked on a career focused on people with disabilities of all kinds, with stops at Goodwill Industries, the University of Minnesota, Control Data Corp. and the Sister Kenny Institute at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. In those roles, Schatzlein was well known as the guy who would greet anyone with a grin, a bearlike hug and a wealth of practical and philosophical advice on living with disabilities.
“He was like a fountain of advice and knowledge about, ‘You’ve got this issue, that issue, we can fix this, we can repair that,’ ” said longtime friend Tom McNally, who met Schatzlein after a sudden illness left McNally partly paralyzed. “Stuff I wouldn’t have known — how to get around, how to adjust.”
In the late 1980s, after getting a call from a Canadian sled hockey organizer, Schatzlein set out to form the first U.S. sled hockey team. He assembled a team of athletes with disabilities — few with any hockey experience — and spent hours in his garage, fabricating sleds, sticks and other equipment. In the early days, the team, with Schatzlein as its first goalie, lost frequently and was often short on cash.
But Manny Guerra, a founding team member who went on to earn a gold and bronze medal with the U.S. sled hockey team at the Paralympic Games, said Schatzlein refused to quit, often paying for his teammates’ expenses out of his own pocket as they traveled the world to compete.
“John never wavered,” Guerra said, “it was never even a consideration. He would just take it on his shoulders.”
Two decades later, the USA Sled Hockey program has won four gold medals at the Paralympic Games and has clubs across the country. In addition to his wife of 49 years, Helen Schatzlein of Bloomington, Schatzlein is survived by daughters Melissa Cummings of Robbinsdale, and Erica Schatzlein of Minneapolis, a grandson and two sisters. Services have been held.