On Saturday, October 24, 2015, Seven Bridges Ice Arena will play host to “JJ’s Pay It Forward Celebration,” an event that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the overwhelming outpouring of support JJ O’Connor received from the hockey community following his devastating hockey injury.
O’Connor, a senior at Loyola Academy, was playing his first game of the season for the McFetridge Patriots against the Skokie Flyers on October 24, 1995. He chased a puck into the corner, got tripped up with an opposing defenseman and went head-first into the boards fracturing three vertebrae in his neck and sustaining spinal-cord damage which resulted in O’Connor becoming an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning he is paralyzed from the neck down.
AHAI recently spoke with O’Connor, who has served as USA Hockey’s Disabled Section Chairman since 2002, about his inspirational journey and why he decided to ‘celebrate’ such a life-changing event.
AHAI: Obviously October 24th is a momentous day in your life; one would think it would be a very difficult day to celebrate. What made you decide to host a party and invite the hockey community to share in the celebration?
O’CONNOR: I was sitting around talking with a lifelong friend wondering what I should do that day. Some years the anniversary of my injury goes by without me really remembering it, or are easier than others, but 20 years – that’s a big one; I knew it would be a tough day. Twenty years ago I didn’t think I’d still be here. My friend said, “You should have a party!”
Having a party seemed so self-serving so I decided to use the gravity of the anniversary to give back to the hockey community for all the support they gave me after my injury and during my rehabilitation.
AHAI: What support did you receive from the community?
O’CONNOR: Within days of my injury Norm Spiegel, who was then President of AHAI and Jim Smith, Past President of AHAI and at that time Secretary of USA Hockey came to visit me in the hospital. They rallied Chicago Blackhawks players and alumni as well as created the JJ O’Connor Catastrophic Relief Fund to help with the cost of my hospitalization and rehabilitation. The generosity of the hockey community was amazing – one young man even asked that guests of his birthday party donate to JJ’s Catastrophic Relief Fund instead of bringing presents. I just wouldn’t be where I am today without Norm and Jim.
Jim continued to visit me in the hospital – I remember waking up in my hospital bed the day after his first visit – I was on a ventilator, tubes everywhere and there he was. We just kind of stared at each other – he was horrible at reading lips! And he was there the next day and the next and every day since.
AHAI: You have accomplished so much in your life – USA Hockey’s Disabled Chairman, a sought after motivational speaker, business owner, AHAI’s webmaster – and that’s only a small list of your achievements. One would imagine that coming to terms with the reality of your injury and what it meant must have been incredibly difficult. Did you have an “ah ha” moment that led you to where you are today?
O’CONNOR: Yes, a year after I was released from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago I went to Craig Hospital’s Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Unit in Colorado. I wanted to “be normal” and thought with their ground-breaking therapy, hard work and determination I would be able to walk again – that’s not what happened. There was no magic pill, and I was advised to go home and get on with my life. It was a devastating day; I was an 18 year old kid – how was I to “get on” with my life?
I pondered all the harsh realities of my situation atop Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs before returning home to Illinois. I was upset and depressed; this was my last effort, my last chance to walk. My “ah ha” moment happened while I was at the top of Pikes Peak looking out at the majestic scenery – I had to make a choice – I could go home and be miserable and effect everyone around me and wallow about my situation, OR I could go home and overcome this obstacle and be the best I could be. I could very possibly not be here at all so I needed to choose to go through life with a smile. This is a decision that I still make every day; I still tell myself, “You will not get this day back, so make the most of it!” Truly, life is what you make of it – I have no regrets or complaints.
AHAI: You have been USA Hockey’s Disabled Section Chair since 2002. How did you come into that role and what types of hockey fall under the Disabled umbrella?
O’CONNOR: As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be where I am today without Jim Smith – he began taking me to USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in Colorado Springs where I met so many people passionate about hockey. It just so happened that USA Hockey was looking for a Disabled Section Chair. They knew who I was from my many visits with Jim, and the rest is history.
Disabled Hockey is divided into four disciplines – Standing/Amputee, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Sled and Special Hockey, and a new discipline to begin shortly – the Warrior Discipline for Veterans with a disability.
AHAI: Your “Pay It Forward Celebration” is raising money for three charities close to your heart – The GLASA Fire Power Soccer team, Disabled Hockey and the Blackhawks Warriors Hockey Team for injured veterans.
O’CONNOR: That’s correct. I look at my life and what I’ve been able to do because of the support of the hockey community – raising money to enable these athletes to play a competitive sport is important to me. There is a common misconception that disabled people aren’t competitive or athletic; that’s just not true.
My “Pay It Forward Celebration” is a thank you for the 20 years of support I’ve been given and the great life I’ve had so far because of that support. I believe the greatest thank you that one can give is to do the same for someone else down the road – to ‘pay it forward’.
I invite everyone to bring their family out to this special evening and enjoy the festivities; there will be games, rides, events and entertainment! It will be a win/win for everyone – a fun night for the family and raising funds so that any individual with a disability can participate in life!
Again, the “Pay It Forward Celebration” is on Saturday evening, October 24, 2015 from 7:00pm until Midnight at Seven Bridges Ice Arena (6690 IL-53 in Woodridge, IL 60527; 630.271.4400). All donations that evening are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
Click HERE to view JJ’s Pay It Forward Celebration Flyer
Categories: Hockey Headlines