MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s approaching 10 p.m., and the line that snakes through the upper lobby at the New England Sports Center shows no signs of shrinking. Nobody is leaving without getting what they came for.
It isn’t the Boston Bruins alumni, who had just played a charity game against an all-star team of amputee players, that everybody is waiting for. To the kids participating at the 2014 USA Hockey Disabled Festival the prize for their patience is much bigger than that.
Every disabled player and family member will leave here with more than just an autographed team photo of the 2014 U.S. Sled Hockey Team. They will carry with them a memory that will serve as a source of inspiration moving forward.
“These kids look up to these guys like they’re [Alex] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby. They’re their heroes, and they give them a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to shoot for,” says J.J. O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, who considers the presence of these Paralympians the crowning jewel of this weekend celebration of disabled hockey.
The 13 Paralympians who came here with their gold medals in tow are happy to oblige. For many of them, they have been on the other side of the autograph table, and giving up a few hours of their time and a little writer’s cramp is a small price to pay it forward.
“I think it’s great because I get to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” says Rico Roman, who is here competing for the San Antonio Rampage.
“These guys really look up to us as National Team players and Paralympians, so for me to sign some autographs and take a few pictures hopefully will inspire them to be the best that they can be. I really get fired up from seeing the youth players and the smiles on their faces. I love it.”
As O’Connor is proud to point out, these festivals are more than just another hockey tournament or a showcase of skills. It’s a chance for every player, whether they are competing in a sled, a special hockey game or as a member of an amputee team to say loud and proud that they too are hockey players just like their able-bodied brethren.
And what these Paralympians represent is the possibility that there are opportunities to be a part of something bigger if they continue to work hard and believe in themselves.
“It’s like pulling on that USA jersey,” says Kip St. Germaine, a three-time Paralympian who is coaching the UNH Wildcats adult team.
“It’s an honor and a responsibility that you can’t take lightly. It’s one thing to make the Paralympic Team and win the gold medal, but there are other responsibilities that come outside of the ice … to get kids enthused and involved because they’re the future.”
To their credit, every member of the gold-medal team understands that and relishes the opportunity to serve as an example for the next generation of disabled athlete.
“It’s awesome to be that kind of role model for these kids,” says Josh Sweeney, who scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game against Russia.
“That’s why I try to do the best I can to let them know that it’s possible for them, and it’s not something that they can’t do if they get to work.”