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
Long before Johnathan Morrison was the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee, he was a 30-something-year-old trying to find his way on the international circuit.
Little did Morrison know, a random phone call in October 2005 would change his life. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He had taken a puck to the face a month earlier and was still recovering from a broken cheekbone when Scott Brinkman gave him a ring.
As the officiating advisory group leader for the International Paralympic Committee at the time, Brinkman was inquiring to see if Morrison had any interest in officiating a three-team sled hockey tournament in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“He called and asked me if I wanted to get involved with the sport,” Morrison recalled. “Honestly, at that time I had never seen a game played. We were having this conversation about getting involved with the sport and he mentioned that there was an event in February 2006 that he wanted to send me to. It was kind of a chance for me to learn the ins and outs of the sport.”
Wait. There was more.
“He told me if I did good he would send me to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino,” Morrison said. “I had just moved to the Twin Cities and had just started working the WCHA and that would’ve been right in the middle of playoff time. I remember saying to Scott, ‘When exactly will I know if I’m going to go to Torino?’ I asked because I needed to tell my college supervisor that I was going to be gone for the playoffs. He goes, ‘Well, let me rephrase that. Congratulations. You’ve been selected to go to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.’ I was like, ‘Oh crap. Here we go.’”
All of a sudden Morrison was on a crash course, trying to learn the ropes of sled hockey as fast as possible. He watched a bunch of DVDs to study the game as well as any YouTube clips he could get his hands on.
Then it was off to Colorado Springs without any sort of in-game experience.
“I got very lucky because the other individual that they sent to that event in Colorado Springs was a gentleman by the name of Scott McDonald,” Morrison said. “He had been around the sport for a long time and he basically taught me the game.”
While the differences were vast, especially considering Morrison had only ever worked with traditional hockey prior to that event, the biggest difference came down to positioning on the ice.
“Everything I knew about positioning basically got thrown out the window,” Morrison said. “You have to be on top of the play at all times because the penalties are much more subtle and much more difficult to see. You have a stick that’s only 100 centimeters long, so that hook is really hard to see.”
Besides that, Morrison also learned the hard way that certain plays look a heckuva lot different.
“A guy using his stick underneath his sled to try to shoot a puck in a motion for someone that hasn’t been around sled hockey looks a lot like he basically threw it with his hand,” Morrison said. “I remember I actually waved off a goal that I thought was put in with his hand and everybody else knew he put it in with his stick.”
That three-team sled hockey tournament, featuring the United States, Canada, and Germany, gave Morrison the confidence he needed heading into the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino.
“I had just worked a bunch of games at a really high level,” Morrison said. “I was seeing the best players, so I felt good. When I actually got to the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino it was one of those things where I had to step up and get better every game. There was no choice.”
For Morrison, the first game of the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino was life-changing.
“When I was younger I was hoping to make the NHL (as an official),” Morrison said. “Once I was about 30 years old, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen, so I kind of switched mental gears and said, ‘OK. Let’s go the international route.’ Obviously the brass ring for the international route is the Olympics. That’s what I was pushing for. That’s what I thought I had my best shot at. Then all of a sudden I get this call that I am going to the Paralympics. It took my breath away. I had been working for something like that, and once it happened, all I wanted to do was get ready for it.”
Since then, Morrison has worked three more Paralympic Games (Vancouver, Sochi, and Pyeongchang) on top of handling his current role with the International Paralympic Committee.
In that position, Morrison works with the technical side of the sport, which basically focuses on our rulebooks, as well as the officiating development side of the sport, which essentially is a pathway that finds a way to get the most out of our officials. He also oversees the assigning of certain officials to certain tournaments
“I am looking for officials that have succeeded at some of the highest levels that show a passion for the sport,” Morrison said. “I’d say the passion for the sport is as important, if not more important, than what they have accomplished elsewhere. I don’t want the guy that calls me and is like, ‘Hey. I’m a good linesman. Can I go to the World Championships?’ Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. I want guys that actually love the sport.”
That became a focus based on his experiences with the sport over the better part of the last two decades. He has grown extremely passionate about it, and as the leader of the bunch, he wants every member of his officiating crews to feel the same way.
“I’ve been in this sport long enough and I know guys that have worked the Calder Cup and worked the Frozen Four that I could introduce them to sport the same way I was introduced and they’d do a good job,” Morrison said. “That said, I want that individual who is so passionate about the sport that they have taken a week out of their summer to come and train with us. I’m looking for someone who is passionate about the sport and I think we’ve done a good job with that so far.”