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Disabled Festival a huge event for Team USA's O'Connor

04/07/2010, 9:45am EDT
By Alex Clark

J.J. O’Connor has had quite a year. As general manager of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, he watched as Team USA captured its first-ever 2009 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championship gold medal last May. Last month, while operating in the same role with the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, he cheered the U.S. on to the gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C.

But the biggest event for O’Connor and disabled hockey throughout the United States will take place this weekend outside of Washington, D.C., at the sixth annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival. The event, which features all four disciplines of disabled hockey including deaf/hard of hearing hockey, special hockey, sled hockey and standing/amputee hockey, will welcome 47 teams and approximately 600 athletes to The Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md., April 8-11.

“We’ve seen increases in exposure and participation over the years,” said O’Connor. “Part of the reason why we hold such a big event that caters to all four disciplines is to attract greater attention to each individually. Each event might struggle to garner attention on its own, but this event allows all of the disciplines to gain visibility.”

The event has proven successful in the past, raising money for local disabled hockey programs across the country while increasing awareness and participation for each of the disciplines.

Read the release about the event here.

“It happens all the time,” said O’Connor. “Someone visits our Disabled Festival and is inspired to go out and join their local organization’s team. And we’re seeing higher levels of competition each year because of it.”

One area of growth has been among veterans. The USA Warriors program is a prime example of USA Hockey’s recent efforts to reach out to this important and inspirational category of athletes. With this year’s USA Hockey Disabled Festival taking place in such proximity to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the opportunity to promote USA Warriors’ sled and standing amputee teams has never been better.

Find out more about the USA Warriors program here.

“Hopefully our sport will grow in popularity with wounded veterans,” said O’Connor. “We want the people who have sacrificed so much for our country to know that hockey is a place for them. If they want to play, we will find a way to get them on the ice whether it be as a standing amputee or in a sled.”

But the Festival serves not only to generate growth but to honor its current participants and devoted followers, as well.

“This event is inspirational for the players and the spectators,” said O’Connor. “Our goal every year is to create an atmosphere that leaves a happiness with everyone in the facility. Plus, the more people that attend to watch and cheer on the athletes, the better they feel.

“I’m looking forward to seeing players’ family and friends,” he added. “I enjoy hanging out with fans and sharing special moments with them. Just being a part of the event is such an honor.”

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