The Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, which gets underway in San Jose, California, on Thursday (April 6) promises to be a fun celebration of how inclusive hockey can be to people of all abilities.
That inclusion will be evidenced by the 740 players spread across 63 teams in 14 different divisions competing over the course of the weekend.
As challenging a sport as hockey is to even the most able-bodied person, the festival demonstrates how many people can still enjoy the game despite what might be considered a debilitating condition.
The festival serves as the national championship tournament for the most popular disabled division — sled hockey — but for the rest of the different types of hockey, it’s more of an all-inclusive get-together for fun, camaraderie and a chance to display skills and determination.
“There is one national championships that’s part of our Disabled Hockey Festival, and that’s our sled nationals, so those teams did earn their way through winning their league,” said Jeremy Kennedy, USA Hockey’s membership development and disabled hockey manager. “The rest of them — everyone’s invited, it’s really there to expose disabled hockey to the masses, and to celebrate disabled hockey, basically.”
The 7th USA Hockey Sled Hockey National Championship will also take place during the festival
There will be competition in several different disabled categories. After sled hockey, the grouping with the most participants is special hockey, played by players with cognitive disabilities like Down Syndrome.
Then there is the Warrior Division, unmodified hockey played by military veterans with varying disabilities.
“The Warrior Division, all the players have to be veterans with a minimum disability rating, and it’s not necessarily a physical disability,” Kennedy said. “It could be a cognitive disability, and in theory, like being deaf or blind, you have to have a minimum disability rating from the [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs].”
And while there are several all-military sled hockey teams, Warrior Division players play stand-up hockey. Also included within the division during the festival is the national standing amputee team.
“There’s a National Standing Amputee Team where everybody has to have at least one limb amputated,” Kennedy explained. “We have some players that skate with a prosthetic leg. Some of the people that have arms [amputated], for example, will have a special attachment on the prosthetic that holds onto the stick for them, some of them will play with just one arm. There are no real programs for that, so a lot of times those players just play on typical men’s hockey teams. And there’s an organization that puts them all together on one team for the festival, and because there’s only one team, we put them in with the Warrior group, because they kind of fit with that group the most."
And, perhaps most amazingly of all, there will also be a three-game exhibition of blind hockey during the festival, where people with varying degrees of blindness can still play, with a few minor changes to the rules.
Blind hockey utilizes a special oversized puck that contains ball bearings so that players can hear it.
“Blind hockey is one of our newest disciplines in the U.S., and it’s actually one of the faster-growing ones — we have a lot of programs popping up around the country,” Kennedy pointed out. “The way it’s played currently, is that your most blind player is going to be your goaltender, and as your level of blindness gets better, you move up, so your defense is going to be next. Your forwards are going to be people that are legally blind, but a lot of times, they have some kind of vision, either tunnel vision or something like that, like they can only see peripherals or only see something when it’s really close.”
Blind hockey utilizes a special oversized puck called a meta-puck. This puck contains ball bearings so that players can hear it and track its movement.
“They play traditional rules as far as offsides and icing and stuff, but the couple of differences are, they can only shoot within the lower two-thirds of the goal — we have a little thing that hangs over the top that blocks the top third of the net,” Kennedy explained. “And then, when they come into the attacking zone, they have to make one pass before they shoot, and that’s because the goalie can get a good bearing on where the puck is. A lot of times, if you’re just skating the puck yourself, it’s hard to hear those ball bearings, but once you hit it or pass it, you can hear the ball bearings again. Your defensive players, a lot of times, their role is just to stay in the middle of the defensive zone and break up that pass, because a lot of times they can’t see as well, so they’re back and waving the stick as the people come across the blue line."
“The referees get somewhat involved, because as the puck leaves the attacking zone, they’re calling things out so that the players know they need to get out of the attacking zone, and then there’s also a separate whistle or buzzer that they push, which indicates that the pass has been completed and the shot can now be taken."
Most of the festival games will take place at Solar4America Ice in San Jose, the four-sheet practice facility of the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, with some additional contests being played at the Solar4America facility in nearby Fremont.
There will also be a big social event Friday night (Apr. 7) at the SAP Center, the Sharks’ home rink.
“We usually try to have a social aspect to this, because it’s a celebration of all of our disciplines and having people interact with each other,” Kennedy said. “Seeing as this is being partnered with the Sharks, I actually anticipate our crowds being a little better than normal, as far as people that aren’t friends and family of those that are participating, just because they have that ability to market and already have that outreach they can get to easily, compared to just a local youth hockey association that is hosting.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.