skip navigation

Sled Classic Trophy Namesake O’Connor Humbly Accepts Honor

By Heather Rule, 12/12/17, 10:45AM MST


Despite reservations about being deserving enough, sport’s ‘Stanley Cup’ bears his name

J.J. O’Connor was uncomfortable with it. He’s not one to gloat about anything. He flat out — humbly and graciously — said no. He didn’t want his name associated with a new trophy for the USA Hockey Sled Classic.

There had to be somebody more deserving, according to O’Connor. Somebody else. Some other name.

“I don’t feel I’m worthy of such an honor to have a trophy like that named after me,” O’Connor said, despite his career as one of the builders of disabled hockey. “I would just never feel as though I’ve done enough … to have something like that.”

It was a back-and-forth tug-of-war before the National Hockey League’s steering committee settled on this: The O’Connor Courage Trophy.

O’Connor eventually agreed, though reluctantly. As he still works toward getting over the fact that his name is on it, he said he is also proud and is glad the players have something unique to strive toward achieving.

The new trophy — meant to be the Stanley Cup of sled hockey — was awarded to the Tier I champion Chicago Blackhawks in the USA Hockey Sled Classic at the end of the tournament Nov. 16-19 in Plymouth, Minnesota. It was the trophy’s debut at the eighth annual event, which started with four teams in 2010 and was up to a record 28 teams over five tiers this year, represented by a record 20 NHL clubs.

The process for the trophy’s creation started a few months ago. Paul LaCaruba, senior manager, social responsibility with the NHL, was part of the group to put the concept together. The NHL and the Hockey is for Everyone program LaCaruba is involved with wanted to find ways to better recognize the tremendous athletes in the Sled Classic, he said.

They brainstormed what could be done to celebrate those playing and also create awareness for the tournament and the sport, according to LaCaruba. The trophy idea was born.

“It did start, in a sense, with the [Stanley] Cup,” LaCaruba said. “Thinking about how players, when they’re kids, dream of winning some of these awards and how powerful that could be for someone who has a disability.”

They considered something similar to other hockey trophies, plus they wanted to make sure the weight was just right to allow players to lift the trophy and propel themselves around the ice in celebration. LaCaruba didn’t want to overstate the importance of the trophy but added that it’s a symbol and celebrates disabled hockey.

“But I think that the amount of effort and design and thought that went into the design, and financially, the commitment suggests our heightened level of awareness of the sport and our commitment to seeing it grow year over year,” LaCaruba said.

The last thing the committee decided was the trophy’s name. The committee’s decision to name it after O’Connor was unanimous — except for the man himself. They went back to the drawing board when O’Connor declined the first time, but a deadline crunch as the tournament neared caused the committee to beg him to reconsider, LaCaruba said.

The compromise was to add the word “courage,” a word that LaCaruba felt was more than appropriate for people who play sled hockey.

“Courage being obviously something that speaks to anybody who’s been disabled, who’s faced such a challenge in their life,” LaCaruba said, “and is willing to try to overcome it.”

The majority of other NHL trophies are named after players or people associated with the game as well, so they wanted to continue that tradition, LaCaruba said.

Just because O’Connor wasn’t all-in with the naming process — LaCaruba joked that O’Connor suggested “some pretty terrible names” to get the spotlight away from him — doesn’t mean he has issues with the trophy itself. He loves it.

“I think it means probably as much to them as a Stanley Cup might. Maybe more,” O’Connor said. “Because this is a trophy that was designed specifically with the sled players in mind.”

The 28-pound trophy designed by Society Awards was displayed in the lobby of Plymouth Ice Center for the tournament weekend. Players saw the trophy for the first time, some taking pictures when they saw their name. The names of players on former Sled Classic championship teams were added, just like on the Stanley Cup. It has a wood base with a silver, upright sled and silver sled sticks on top, truly a one-of-a-kind trophy.

“For the players, I think to have somebody, an organization like the NHL, respect them enough to produce something like that really is just a huge honor,” O’Connor said.

Now the chair of the Disabled Hockey Section for USA Hockey, O’Connor broke his neck playing hockey at age 16, and after graduating college he found USA Hockey was looking for someone to lead the disabled hockey efforts of the organization. Sled hockey, a Paralympic sport, is one of the six disciplines within the disabled hockey umbrella. O’Connor was elected to the position and started a youth sled hockey team in his native Chicagoland, since there wasn’t one. He worked to promote hockey for anyone with a disability.

Having a trophy is just another step toward the success and growth within sled hockey, according to O’Connor. It’s the icing and the cherry on top, he said. The hope is to have the trophy kept at the Hockey Hall of Fame and possibly travel to events when appropriate. They’ll also consider the potential for other awards at the other tiers in future years at the tournament, according to LaCaruba.

O’Connor recalls playing hockey when he was a kid, dreaming of playing in the NHL and playing in a Game 7 to get his name on the Stanley Cup in the Hockey Hall of Fame. His name will be in the Hall now, just in a different form.

“I think it’s a testament, just because you’re in a wheelchair or just because you have … adversity to overcome, you can still end up on a trophy in the Hall of Fame,” O’Connor said. “And it doesn’t have to be playing a sport. It could be by just doing what you love to help others.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc

Recent News

Most Popular Articles

COVID-19 and the 2020-21 Season

By Matt Leaf 04/02/2020, 11:30am MDT

Even with almost 50 years of involvement in hockey, you can’t plan for the current state of the world and the impact coronavirus has had on our game. I think it is safe to say that nothing prepares you for the changes that have taken place in our daily lives and the uncertainty of when things might return to normal. Or in this case, what will become the new “normal.”

Our expertise is hockey, so what we’ll address in this piece: the impact of the global pandemic on our game and how likely it will affect our game in the immediate future. 

USA Hockey continues to post information on COVID-19 on the main website. These updates keep our membership informed of specific programs and the changing safety recommendations that will be in place when hockey returns. Be sure to check back regularly for updates and other hockey information.

On the officiating front, much of what we are able to do from a program standpoint is connected to player events like national tournaments and player development camps. As you know, the national tournaments (along with the March, April and May IIHF World Championship events) were cancelled. The Officiating Program then canceled our two instructor training programs that were planned for late April and early May in Lake Placid, N.Y., and Colorado Springs, Colo. 

At this time, details for any potential summer development camps are still being determined. On the player side, several camps we are connected to were cancelled, and the few camps that are still in planning have been dramatically downsized. The Officiating Program continues to monitor the decisions made for players and will take advantage of any opportunity we have to salvage our summer camp program and maximize participation.

The good news is, we are confident we will have a 2020-21 season. All indications show no reason to delay registration. It will open as scheduled on or around May 26, followed by the open book exams and online seminar curriculum on June 1. 

SafeSport Training (required for anyone born in the year 2003 or earlier) and background screening (learn about the new national level screening program in the Q & A section) will also be available to complete at that time. If COVID-19 still has things slowed down in early June, it would be an ideal time to get these requirements completed.

The biggest unknown will be the timing in which we will be able to conduct seminars. The vast majority of rinks are currently closed, and many of them took this opportunity to remove ice to save operating costs and do maintenance. There is now doubt they will be prepared to quickly ramp up once they are allowed to do so, but as with most everything right now, the timing is uncertain. As a result, some of the earlier seminars may be pushed back a few weeks. The District Referees-in-Chief will secure ice times and facilities so we can provide seminar dates and locations as quickly as possible. We are also encouraging our instructors to think outside the box by providing some weeknight seminar options, and to look at other ways to best meet the needs of our members.

The Advanced Officiating Symposium, scheduled for Providence, R.I. in late July, is still going to plan. We will continue to monitor the situation, including local restrictions and travel advisories in the coming weeks, and we will announce any changes in advance to allow for alterations to travel arrangements. Click here for up-to-date information or to reserve your seat at the 2020 Advanced Officiating Symposium.

These are difficult times for everyone, and although our hockey family is important to us, it is a small fraction of the big picture that is impacting our daily lives. To quote Andy Dufresne in his letter for Red that he left under the big oak tree in The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

We hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. We hope the coronavirus is conquered with minimal loss of lives and a return to a prosperous normal as soon as possible. We hope your passion for the game of hockey will only grow as a result of its absence. We hope we are back on the ice in the coming months and that the 2020-21 season will be our best yet.

Thank you for your continued support of USA Hockey and don’t hesitate to contact us if there is anything we can do to make your hockey experience a better one. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy and be prepared to be back on the ice soon.

Q&A: What Young Players Can Learn From Watching Games

By Tom Robinson 04/08/2020, 8:45am MDT

Director of youth hockey Kenny Rausch on what can be learned while watching

USA Hockey Announces National Background Screening Program

By USA Hockey 04/02/2020, 12:00pm MDT

In order to comply with new requirements from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), USA Hockey will be implementing a national level background screening program. This program will replace all USAH Affiliate coordinated background screen programs.

Why must officials be screened?
Per USA Hockey and USOPC policy, all coaches, officials, board members, employees, volunteers, billets and anyone else who will have regular contact with, or authority over, minor athletes are required to submit a background screen before any contact with minor athletes.

Who is required to be screened?
Officials who are 18 years-old (or older) prior to June 1 of the current year.

Any official, 18 years-old (or older) without a completed valid background screen (national or USAH Affiliate coordinated) after April 1, 2019.

All national background screens are valid for two seasons, and starting on June 1, 2020 a national background screen must be completed and in good standing before receiving an officiating card and crest.

What are the timelines for launching the national background screen program?
Beginning on April 1, 2020, background screening will be conducted by our national background screen vendor, National Center for Safety Initiatives (NCSI), and information on background screening will be included following your registration.

As of March 22, 2020, applicants will no longer be able to submit new USA Hockey background screens through USAH Affiliate vendors, and will not be able to submit new screens through NCSI until April 1, 2020.

If you were screened after April 1, 2019 for the 2019-20 season, your screen is valid for the 2020-21 season, and you will not need to be screened under the new system until prior to the 2021-22 season. If your most recent screen is from prior to April 1, 2019, you will need to be screened under the new system, after April 1, 2020, in order to participate in the upcoming season.

All new screens submitted through the new NCSI national screening program after April 1, 2020 will be valid for two seasons.  For example, a screen submitted and approved on April 15, 2020 will be valid through the end of the 2021-22 season, which is August 31, 2022.

How can members complete their required background screen?
A link to submit for screening will be included in your membership registration confirmation email and posted in the drop-down menu under the OFFICIALS tab at

Background screens through NCSI under the national program will cost $30 for all domestic screens. For international screens (members who have lived outside of the U.S. for six consecutive months in any one county during the past 7 years) the flat rate fee is $150. If that country is solely Canada, the flat rate fee is $75.

Where can members go with questions about the national background screen program?
Please refer to the USA Hockey Background Screen webpage at