MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – As he looks across the lobby at the New England Sports Center watching a stream of players and parents searching for their locker room assignments, J.J. O’Connor can only smile when he thinks about how far the USA Hockey Disabled Festival has come in such a relatively short amount of time.
“It’s hard to believe that 10 years has gone by so fast, but as they say ‘time flies when you’re having fun,’” says O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section.
“We’ve developed this festival into a grand event that everyone looks forward to.”
From its humble beginnings in 2005 with the first festival at the Great Lakes Sports City in Fraser, Mich., the Disabled Festival has come a long way. At the same time, it has held true to its goal of providing opportunities for players with various disabilities to enjoy the game.
More than 500 players competing in sled, special, amputee and hearing-impaired hockey programs faced off for a three-day festival that was more of a celebration than a competition.
Once confined to the sidelines, more disabled athletes are finding fun, friendship and a sense of belonging as they put their disabilities on ice. Creating programs like the Disabled Festival has given players from around the country an opportunity to not only compete but to get together under the USA Hockey banner.
“Every walk of life is here. That’s what makes it such a beautiful thing,” says O’Connor. “The goal is to create a grand event for people with disabilities to be able to enjoy the game of hockey. At the end of the day it’s not who wins or loses, it’s the fact that everyone gets to enjoy the game and have fun.”
There was no complaining about officiating, stressing out about wins and losses or whining about ice time. It was all about the opportunity to have fun playing the game they have come to love.
“I think we could all learn a lesson from these kids,” says Tom Brake, whose involvement with disabled hockey predates the first festival.
Not that the Disabled Festival doesn’t have a competitive side to it. For the fourth consecutive year the Festival features a National Sled Hockey Championship, with 13 of the 17 members gold-medal winning Paralympic Team competing for their local clubs.
“It’s definitely different playing against these guys. We haven’t faced each other since the last Disabled Festival,” says Declan Farmer, who got the better of his friend and linemate Brody Roybal as the Florida Bandits defeated the RIC Blackhawks, 6-3.
“Brody and I have a friendly rivalry. We’re friends on the ice but we always try to beat each other any time we’re on the ice together. It’s that way with all of us [Paralympians].”
Over the years the event has grown from 24 teams in 2005 to 54 this time around. Leading the charge has been the growth in the number of youth and adult sled hockey programs, which has been sparked by the success of U.S. Sled Hockey Teams at the Winter Paralympics.
Special hockey has also witnessed a surge in popularity as parents and physicians have discovered the act of being on the ice has helped people with autism, cerebral palsy and other disorders better integrate into society.
“I don’t think that our see differences [with other disabled hockey players],” says Amy LaPoe, the mother of a player on the Tomahawks special hockey team.
“You’re not focused on the fact that you can’t hear or you’re in a sled, you’re focused on playing hockey and having a lot of fun.”
A team from the American Hearing Impaired Hockey Association, which celebrated its 40th anniversary, took on local youth hockey teams, while the standing amputee division promises to be its most competitive competition to date.
Judging from the looks on the faces of those who converged on the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Mass., for the tenth annual USA Hockey Disabled Festival in the spring, the fun is not limited to the ice. Not only are parents getting caught up in the action, those not even involved in the tournament can’t help but notice a positive energy that pervades the six-sheet facility that has hosted multiple USA Hockey events in the past.
“I use the word inspirational,” says Rick Fask, a Mass Hockey volunteer who is overseeing the festival. “It’s one of the most inspirational and rewarding things that I’ve ever done.”
A busy opening day was capped off with a special benefit game that pitted an all-star team of sled and standing amputee players, including Boston Marathon bombing victim, Mark Fucarile, took on the Boston Bruins alumni to kick off Friday night’s festivities that included a banquet and concert.
“This makes a world of difference for these kids. Not only can they play hockey, but this improves the quality of their lives in many ways,” says O’Connor.
“This is your chance to tell the world, ‘Just because I’m disabled doesn’t mean that I’m not a fantastic hockey player.’ ”