Now that sled hockey has its own version of the Stanley Cup, it had to be put on display in a fitting locale. Where better than the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto?
The Hall also had a hand in the trophy’s original design, so it really was the perfect place to display the O’Connor Courage Trophy, presented to the winners of the highest level of competition at the USA Hockey Sled Classic.
The trophy was first awarded to the Chicago Blackhawks sled hockey squad for winning the Tier I championship in Plymouth, Minnesota, on Nov. 19, after they defeated the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 in the title game.
Also like the Stanley Cup, it is engraved with the names of the top champions, including all individual members’ names from the seven previous Sled Classic tournaments.
That the trophy made it back to the Hall in time for February’s “Hockey is for Everyone” Month was especially appropriate.
“I think it really sends a message that hockey is for everybody, and it’s really special that the trophy was finished this month and we got it here for display,” said Phil Pritchard, the Hall of Fame’s curator and vice president of the resource center. “Obviously, February is ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ Month, so the timing was perfect to get it on display, but it’s going to be on display throughout the year, except, obviously, when it’s being used, like all the hockey trophies are.”
The process of designing the trophy included input from the Hall of Fame, USA Hockey and the NHL. The responsibility for its creation fell to a company called Society Awards, and they came up with a beauty.
“We assembled a steering committee made up of Paralympians and many who volunteered their time and expertise to build sled hockey in the United States and contributed to the annual tournament,” said Paul LaCaruba, the NHL’s director of social responsibility. “The NHL just acted as the project manager, but we allowed these folks to help dictate, along with [Pritchard], what the trophy was going to look like, how it needed to function in order to be designed appropriately for someone in a sled to pick it up. So we wound up with a crossed-sticks model with picks, so it was very clearly identifiable as a sled trophy, but the base of the trophy is that classic wood hockey award-type feel.
“Many of them wanted to keep the design consistent with some of the other more well-known hockey trophies. It was really, I think, well-received by the players, to feel like they’re being acknowledged by the broader hockey community as every bit as talented as the players that we have on NHL ice.”
“Hockey has the best trophies going and adding the O’Connor Trophy, it keeps that tradition and that respect that hockey seems to have for its trophies right up there,” added Pritchard, who is perhaps best known as one of the handlers of the Stanley Cup. “The way it was designed and everything, with the team from the NHL to the Hall, to USA Hockey, to the [sled] hockey representatives, it’s a pretty cool, modern-looking trophy, but I think it represents all the tradition that sledge hockey wants. I think it’s all captured there.”
The final step was naming the trophy. The O’Connor part comes from J.J. O’Connor, USA Hockey’s section director of disabled hockey. He was on the committee but didn’t feel his name should be attached to it. It took convincing from the rest of the committee, who also added the word “Courage,” thus completing the trophy and demonstrating a commitment to sled hockey by the wider hockey world.
The trophy’s display at the Hall of Fame was part of a whole host of initiatives for Hockey is for Everyone Month, including U.S. National Sled Team captain Josh Pauls serving as an ambassador for the sport.
“Putting the spotlight on Josh and guys like Brody Roybal [who led the USA Sled Classic tournament in scoring as a member of the triumphant Blackhawks] on both the U.S. and Canadian sides, is extremely important to the NHL in our mission to make sure that everybody knows that they’re welcome and included in the game and there’s a place for them to play at the rec level, at the grassroots level, and in the case of sled hockey, all the way up to the Olympic stage,” LaCaruba said.
That growth is continuing. After just four teams participated in the first USA Hockey Sled Classic in 2010, there were a record 28 teams, representing a record 20 NHL organizations, competing in five different divisions, this past November.
Having the trophy on regular display at the Hall of Fame will also help increase the sport’s visibility. And while Hockey is for Everyone month is over, the philosophy is never-ending. In fact, the HHOF recently launched a new youth education program about growing the diversity of the game.
“We’ve had an education program for years and we work with all the school boards in and around the area, and we’ve reached out because hockey is growing at all levels and our community here is very multi-cultural now and we’re trying to reach everyone,” Pritchard said. “So we’ve taken the Hockey-is-for-Everyone theme and added it to our education program, which, I think, newcomers to the game of hockey can appreciate, but I think more than anything, they’re going to realize that no matter where you are in this world, whether you’re from another country or you think you might have a limitation, there’s a place for you in hockey.”
According to the HHOF website, the new program “pays homage to the pioneers who confronted discrimination from the hockey world through their perseverance, talent and courage.”
Pritchard is proud of the program and what it promotes.
“It’s pretty cool and it’s been well-received so far,” he said. “I think that title, ‘Hockey is for Everyone,’ hits it bang-on, because it is. No matter what level you’re on, where you’re from or whatever you’ve got, you can play hockey and I think that’s what makes it a great sport. And we’re thrilled to be a part of it, right from displaying the trophies to helping create them, to have them on display, to be part of the whole thing.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.