COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Pennsylvania is the gold-medal state it was announced today by The USA Hockey Foundation in wrapping up its “Paint America Red, White and Blue” fundraising campaign that spanned the month of December.
The Keystone State's 32 donations led the nation, thus giving it the gold-medal designation. Michigan was not far behind with 27 donors and Massachusetts finished third with 24 donations. Contributions also came from newer hockey markets, including Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina. In total, some 300 people took part with more than $40,000 raised to benefit the continued advancement of hockey in the United States.
“We couldn’t be more thankful to those that participated in this very first Paint America Red, White and Blue campaign,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey and The USA Hockey Foundation. “The contributions received will help further opportunities in the sport at all levels and we are so appreciative of every single gift.”
The USA Hockey Foundation supports USA Hockey efforts that provide opportunities to disabled and disadvantaged youth; help increase participation through a variety of initiatives; enhance the safety of the game; help the U.S. be the best internationally; provide education programs for athletes, coaches, officials and parents; and celebrate the game through commemoration.
Tom Smith thought he would never play hockey again. After suffering a spinal cord injury playing junior hockey, he turned his efforts to preventing injuries like his own, forming a non-profit foundation called the Look-Up Line.
But at this year’s USA Hockey Disabled Festival in Marlborough, Mass., he put himself into a sled and onto the ice for the first time since 2008.
“You could see the smile on his face. It was like he was back again,” said JJ O’Connor, chairman of the disabled section at USA Hockey. “To watch a player transform in front of your eyes and realize that they can do this, it’s incredible.”
O’Connor said Smith’s story is just one example of the impact the yearly USA Hockey Disabled Festival has. Reaching a milestone 10th Anniversary this year, the festival focuses on the four disabled disciplines represented by the USA Hockey Disabled Section: sled, special, amputee and hearing impaired.
None of it would be made possible without the USA Hockey Foundation and its donors.
USA Hockey Foundation donors have played an important role in the festival since its inception 10 years ago. Each year, $25,000 is granted to the festival, which helps defray the total cost of the weekend. Once the festival is complete, the USA Hockey Foundation continues to give back, donating net proceeds to promoting disabled hockey in the host community.
“I can’t be more appreciative for all that the USA Hockey Foundation has contributed to allow us to enjoy the game we love,” said O’Connor. “There aren’t too many governing bodies that even include disabled athletes as part of its mission so we are always grateful.”
With the festival, athletes from across the U.S. have the chance to compete on the ice with those most similar to them. But it’s even more than just a source of competition – it’s a source of camaraderie.
“It’s people with disabilities, showcasing their abilities,” O’Connor said. “It’s a social environment and opens up people’s eyes who are both participating and who aren’t.
“When you look at these players you realize how tremendous they really are.”
This year the Disabled Festival brought 55 teams to the ice – the most in the festival’s history. For old and new players and fans alike, the excitement is unparalleled.
“When I do find new players, I invite them (to the Disabled Festival) and I can tell you, it’s life changing,” said Karen Wonoski, who has been managing the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association team for eight years. “Many of them have never seen anything like it and they probably won’t.
“It’s amazing to be a part of.”
Although the hearing impaired represents the smallest of the four disciplines, Wonoski said just competing in this festival helps raise awareness and recruit more members for the team.
“Once they see what it’s all about, they are hooked,” she added. “They love being around the game and with coaches who know how to work with them. And for our players, they see all these other disabilities and might realize it’s not so bad.
“You don’t let it hold you back.”
And thanks to help from the USA Hockey Foundation and its donors, none of these players were held back from participating.
“I don’t think you could put into words the amount of help and opportunity this has provided for people,” said O’Connor. “I am eternally grateful.”
For more information on the USA Hockey Disabled Festival or disabled hockey, visit their website.
With one final blare of the goal horn, it was over. Wiping away more than three decades of IIHF World Championship frustration, Team USA had toppled Russia.
This wasn’t the universally known Miracle on Ice of 1980, but it was a watershed moment, sending a powerful message about USA Hockey on the international stage. What the 1996 United States Men’s National Team accomplished in a 4-3 overtime defeat of Russia in Vienna, Austria, was a step toward more consistent success at the World Championship.
“It was pretty dramatic,” said 1996 team member Tom Chorske. “It was a shorthanded goal by Brian Rolston, so that was pretty incredible. The Russian team was always good, and that was a time just after the heyday of the Red Army teams…so it was a big deal to beat the Russians.”
The win cemented a bronze medal for Team USA – its first medal-finish in the tournament since 1962. In total, the boys in red, white and blue have taken home 10 medals at the World Championship, with three of those being claimed since the 1996 team won bronze.
“After we got that medal, I think guys started to realize there was something to play for,” said Joe Sacco, a forward on the 1996 team and assistant coach of the 2014 U.S. Men’s National Team that competed in Minsk, Belarus. “I think the players don’t understand how important (the World Championship) is to other countries. It’s almost like their Stanley Cup over there. It’s a great tournament and it was a lot of fun. To bring home a medal in the process, the first in 34 years, you leave a mark when do something like that.”
According to Sacco, it wasn’t a star-studded roster; rather it was just a bunch of working-class guys extending their hockey seasons, but that’s what made it work.
“Anytime you are able to get a team to come together quickly as a group, it’s going to help your chances,” said Sacco, who fed Rolston for the eventual game-winner. “It was a lot of blue collared-type attitudes, a lot of good guys and we were all on the same page pretty quickly.”
With Ron Wilson at the helm, Team USA worked its way to the bronze-medal game with preliminary wins over Austria, Germany and Slovakia. A quarterfinal win over Sweden and semifinal loss to the eventual gold medal-winning Czech Republic set up the third-place contest.
Rolston’s goal at 4:48 of overtime sealed it for the Americans. The medal win was 34 years in the making, and it put USA Hockey back on track. That impact wasn’t lost on the players.
“To be on this team was really something,” said Chorske. “It proved that USA Hockey was ascending to be one of the top teams in the world. It was a step forward in our success internationally for a long time to come.”
USA Hockey has been a stepping-stone in the careers of Chorske and Sacco, too.
“I’ve been very fortunate. USA Hockey has been a part of my life since I was 16,” said Sacco, now an assistant coach for the Buffalo Sabres. “USA Hockey has been a part of my development as a player and as a coach. It’s been a really good relationship for both sides.”
Chorske is currently working in the business sector but also serves as a hockey broadcast analyst for Fox Sports North in Minnesota. He is forever grateful for the opportunity to represent his home country.
“USA Hockey is a national community that I’m proud to be a part of,” he said. “All of the friendships I’ve made over the years, with those teams, and getting to play alongside other American star hockey players was a lot of fun. Certainly medaling with two of those national teams (he was also a member of the 1986 U.S. National Junior Team that earned the first-ever IIHF World Junior Championship medal for Team USA), it’s a big part of what made up my hockey career.
“Behind winning the Stanley Cup, one of the most successful moments of my career was with that USA Hockey team at the World Championship.”
Their skates may move a little slower than they did nearly 42 years ago in Sapporo, Japan, and there’s probably more silver and white in their hair, but talk to any member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team, and they instantly go back to that time like it happened just yesterday.
“I can still hear the crunch of the snow from our early morning runs around the Olympic Village and playing in those games,” said former defenseman Tom Mellor, a Rhode Island native. “What an experience it all was – just a bunch of amateur hockey players going out to take on the world one game at a time.”
An improbable run to the silver medal started with an upset of Czechoslovakia that some compared to the U.S.’s wins over the Soviet Union in the 1960 and 1980 Olympic Games. Team member and Minnesota native Craig Sarner credits the intense team bond to helping lift Team USA to its success that year.
U.S. Head Coach Murray Williamson demanded that the team stick together right away, beginning with practices and tryouts that began months prior to the Olympic Games. Sarner and Mellor both note that, “everyone had one another’s backs” and “it became one of our biggest and most important families.”
And it’s a family that hasn’t drifted, even though states and careers now separate them. The team chemistry still carries on today with the majority of the players that donned the Red, White and Blue all those years ago.
“The medal was important,” said Sarner. “But the friendships we developed and the lifelong bond we have is the biggest part of it all. We just enjoy the heck out of being together, and it was that chemistry that helped us prove that will does beat skill sometimes.”
After the Olympic Games, most of the team, which included the likes of a then 16-year-old Mark Howe, Henry Boucha and Mike “Lefty” Curran, went on to some sort of professional hockey career, still staying in touch every year via email and phone calls and trips all across the U.S. Sarner, Mellor and the rest of the squad get together frequently. Their last trip was to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the summer of 2012. Mellor said the team already has plans to meet up again this year, a reunion that everyone looks forward to.
The conversation is not always focused solely on hockey. Sarner is still involved as a scout for the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League. Mellor hung up the skates and moved on to “life after hockey.”
They also update the hockey family on each player’s personal family.
“I’m a new grandpa with a granddaughter, Eve, so I am boring the guys with photos and information about her constantly,” said Sarner, whose silver-plated medal hangs in Eve’s room. “So I know they’re tiring of it, but we all update on family life and just everything that’s going on with one another. Never a lack of stories, some true, some fabricated, when this group gets together.”
Stories will be shared by the 1972 alums and their extended USA Hockey family for years to come.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to play with and meet than that team,” said Mellor. “Them and really everyone involved in the USA Hockey organization, from the 1980 team, and beyond, it’s neat to be a part of something like that – to be a part of that family.”