Held in sunny Florida for the first time, the 2019 Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, now in its 15th year, continues to see its impact stretch far beyond the ice from which deaf, blind, special, standing/amputee, sled and warrior hockey players skate. A showcase of all six USA Hockey disabled hockey disciplines, the on-ice focal point of the Festival is USA Hockey’s Adult Sled National Championships that features many U.S. Paralympic gold medalists.
But, off the ice, the Festival does so much more.
Consuelo Sanchez, sports development and tourism manager for Florida’s Sports Coast, the tourism branch of Pasco County, was so moved by the athletes she saw that she had to bring her three daughters to the event.
She felt it was that important to show what happens when people aren’t restricted by others.
“I really wanted to share that experience with them,” said Sanchez. “Not only as a professional, but also as a mother. I think it’s important that our kids realize there are no limits when you are willing to move forward regardless of your limitations.”
Sanchez said her 11-, 14- and 18-year-old daughters were amazed by what they saw at the Festival in Wesley Chapel, Florida.
There were hundreds of athletes who participated in the sled, blind, deaf/hard of hearing, standing/amputee, special and Warrior divisions. And while the Tampa Bay Area may be a hotspot for spring break this time of year, it more than brought out the fans in the hockey community who were unfamiliar with these disciplines.
“At first, it was a lot of people didn’t believe me that there was a blind hockey division because [the misconception exists that] it’s impossible for blind people to be able to play hockey,” said Kristen Bowness, co-chair of the Disabled Festival, who is also manager of diversity development and sled hockey for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Tampa Bay region is becoming a hockey hotbed, thanks in no small part to the Lightning. Prior to its monumental President’s Trophy-winning season this year, the Lightning and Tampa Bay area had hosted the 2018 NHL All-Star Game at Amalie Arena, reached a Stanley Cup Final and served as the training facility for the gold medal-winning 2018 U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team.
“I’m definitely a firm believer now that Tampa is a hockey town,” Bowness said. “You walk around everywhere and there’s lightning bolts, there’s blue. We’re in different schools every single day and you see it with kids, with car flags, just all around the community. The Lightning are represented everywhere.”
Bowness and Sanchez said spectators and players from non-disabled teams quickly learned how those participating in the Disabled Festival were able to play hockey. In blind hockey, there is an oversized puck that makes noise as it moves on the ice. In deaf hockey, the lights flicker to indicate a referee’s whistle. Players with lower body disabilities compete in sleds while some of the standing/amputee players use prosthetics.
Already a huge event, Bowness feels it will continue to evolve and grow.
“I definitely feel like the participant side will grow, as will the spectator [side],” said Bowness. “I thought [both weekends] were awesome, honestly. It was great exposure for hockey in the Tampa Bay area and it was wonderful for everyone to see the different disciplines that disabled hockey offers.”
While Sanchez is still calculating the economic impact of the Festival, there is no doubt from her side that her organization wants to be involved with the Festival, and USA Hockey as a whole, in the future. She said the rinks were packed both weekends and there was extensive media coverage because of the uniqueness of the Festival.
“They were just amazed,” Sanchez said of the community’s reaction once they saw the games being played. “Very supportive, very inspired. Some of the people from the community were inspired and motivated when they saw these athletes competing, doing their best, putting everything on the [rink] to do their best and win.”
And it is an event that will stick with Sanchez for quite a while.
“It was very emotional, especially when I was watching the blind hockey games,” she said. “When you watch these athletes just playing a game they love, in whatever way their bodies will allow them, you just can’t believe how sometimes people limit themselves.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.