Hockey truly can be a lifetime sport. Just ask Khrista Matthews.
First introduced to the sport of sled hockey in 1994, the Ocala, Florida, native continues to play, most recently helping her Tampa Bay Lightning program capture the Tier V championship at the 2018-19 USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, on Feb. 10 in Chicago.
What keeps her going after all this time? The excitement of winning and scoring goals.
So, when Matthews scored in the second period of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 7-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at the tournament, her emotions got the best of her.
“The team has been pushing for me — ‘You’re so close, you’re so close, you’re gonna score, you’re gonna score’ — and I finally scored, so it was kind of emotional,” Matthews said.
Matthews, who lost the use of her legs at age 13 in a car accident, credits being an athlete in training as helping to save the life of her and her sister, Melissa, on that tragic day in 1991 when a wrong-way driver smashed into the vehicle that was carrying them on a New Hampshire highway. She still rides her handcycle daily and also swims, while volunteering at local hospitals as a way to give back for all of the medical treatment she has received.
“I feel like I have to continue to be an athlete and not just any athlete, an all-around, good athlete and be an asset to every team or whatever activity I’m doing because I was saved by being an all-around athlete,” Matthews said.
So she plays on, today as a defender within the Lightning organization. She keeps her focus on her role as a defender, but had a breakout game as she later added an assist when her shot rebounded to teammate Kasey Yates. It started the Lightning toward a 4-0 showing and a Tier V championship.
“Because I’m on defense, I’m very protective of our goal,” Matthews said. “To go up there [on offense], I’m out of my comfort [zone].”
The Tier V championship for Matthews and the Lightning was the first-ever Sled Classic championship in program history. Later that day, the program’s Tier IV team would edge the Dallas Stars in a shootout, 1-0, to give the Lightning two of the tournament’s five division titles.
The Lightning organization, in addition to its championship titles, has helped develop national-level talent, including current U.S. forwards Declan Farmer and Chris Douglas. Farmer scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in the gold-medal game of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games while Douglas actually served as coach for Matthews and the Tier V championship-winning Lightning.
Matthews gave credit for the Lightning program’s success to Kristen Bowness, the Lightning’s manager of diversity development and sled hockey.
“[Bowness has] been with the team for a while and she’s helped developed the team we have now,” Matthews said. “It’s such a good feeling to see the skill level turnaround the last three or four years I’ve been playing for them.”
While Matthews has as much experience as anyone on the team, she doesn’t try to coach her teammates a lot, instead leaving that up to the staff. She has a passion for hockey, but still gets inspired by those around her, including seeing how hard double amputees play.
“That’s what I love. That’s how I’ve been playing all these years,” Matthews said. “I can’t back off, I can’t be afraid. Let’s just go hard.”
Still, having played the sport for 25 years, which included skating on the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team from 2010 to 2015, Matthews has seen the game progress in many ways.
“Since I started playing in 1994 when I was 16, the game has developed quite a bit, in terms of skill level, equipment, speed, everything has changed so much,” Matthews said.
At the international level, 25 years ago there was only one U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, and it was just in its fourth year of existence. Today, there are three: the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, U.S. Men’s Development Sled Hockey Team and U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team. In 1994, the sport itself made its debut at the Paralympic Winter Games. Today, the United States has won a world-leading four gold medals (2002, 2010, 2014, 2018), including an unprecedented three-straight.
The biggest reason for the international success? The sport’s growth at the recreation and club level. Today, USA Hockey hosts events like the Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, the largest disabled hockey event of its kind. As for the aforementioned Sled Classic, its inaugural event included just four teams and 60 participants, a far cry from the 30 teams and 362 players that skated in Chicago.
As the sport continues to grow to unprecedented heights, Matthews has every intention to keep playing as long as she is able.
“It’s so cool for me to be able to say that, even though I have been playing for such a long time, that I am still in position mentally and physically to play — not only play, but help teams win and make teams better.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.