About 1,500 athletes in six disciplines will take part in USA Hockey’s second-largest event
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
A lot has changed since the Disabled Hockey Festival was last in Chicago.
There were about 450 participants at the third annual event in 2006-07. This April, the total number of athletes is expected to top 1,500 in this, the 14th year.
There were four hockey disciplines — sled, special, standing/amputee and deaf/hard of hearing — back in the mid-2000s. This year, there are six disciplines: the same four as a decade earlier, plus the addition of Warrior hockey and blind hockey.
Also, the third festival was held over one weekend. This year, for the first time ever, it will stretch across two weekends.
It’s a monumental year for the 14th annual Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, and organizers believe it will be the best event to date. All disabled hockey disciplines (except sled) will be held April 5 through April 8 at the Leafs Ice Centre in West Dundee, with overflow games running at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva. The sled division will be held on the following weekend, April 12 through April 15, at the same rinks.
“It’s scary a little because the event is just ginormous, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger,” said USA Hockey Disabled Chairman J.J. O’Connor. “You want to make sure you do everything right and give everybody a good weekend and a good time.
“I’m proud of how the event has grown and the number of players that are getting to enjoy our game and hopefully a grand event.”
USA Hockey President Jim Smith credits O’Connor for having the biggest impact in helping the festival grow and flourish.
“The biggest thing is JJ’s leadership with the disabled section and his passion to make this game available to everybody, and just his army of volunteers who work every day out in the grassroots, out in the field trying to create these opportunities,” Smith said. “It’s tough to start new teams, but they go out and they raise the money and they get it started.”
When O’Connor helped start the festival in 2005, he was confident the event would grow over time. How big it would become — doubling in size just since last year — he didn’t have a clue.
“I don’t think I had an end goal in mind, just the more the merrier,” O’Connor said. “The more players that are out there playing and having a good time, the more happy smiles, the better it would be.”
Last year, the festival was held on the West Coast in San Jose, California after a number of years out East. Mike Svac, USA Hockey Central District representative for disabled hockey and festival chair, is excited to have the event back in Chicagoland.
“Geographically, it’s central in the United States, and I think it provides more of an opportunity for more people to come,” Svac said. “Having a disabled athlete, it adds to the travel complexity of getting people to an event like this. So, when you have it in a major city centrally located, bringing it back home to Chicago after all these years and see how it’s changed from where it started to where it is today, I think that makes it exciting for many people, especially those involved early on.”
Smith lives in Chicago and loves to see the event taking ahold of the Windy City. Smith is also pleased the festival is USA Hockey’s second largest event — and the largest indoor event — each year behind the Pond Hockey National Championships in northern Wisconsin.
“It’s important to continue our path of making hockey available to everybody,” Smith said. “It’s just part of our diversity and inclusion long-range plan to try to create as many possibilities for anybody that wants to play our sport.”
This will mark the fourth year Warrior hockey, for disabled military veterans, will be included as one of the six disciplines. The blind hockey division is the most recent addition to the festival, which will be in its third year.
“Usually people are intrigued with blind hockey because obviously you have people who can’t see that are in a fast-paced, enclosed environment,” O’Connor said. “That’s got to have the potential to have some collisions, and collisions happen, but they happen in able body hockey, too.”
O’Connor notes the players have varying levels of blindness and there are certain categories for players to be eligible.
An oversized puck is used that is made of hollow steel and eight ball bearings to create a sound. Once a player enters their team’s zone they must complete one pass to a teammate — when that happens a special whistle is blown that alerts the goalie and the other team a shot could be forthcoming.
Goalies also have to be completely blind or they have blinders put over their masks to ensure they can’t see anything. It has to be awfully hard to stop something you can’t see.
“They can’t see, but they can hear pretty well,” O’Connor said. “You’d be pretty surprised.”
Sled hockey is still the most popular of the disciplines. According to Svac, as of Jan. 1, 65 sled teams had registered to play in the festival. Another 37 special hockey teams are signed up. That is a discipline that is really growing as well, noted Smith. Svac added that a total of 114 teams have signed up and the numbers just keep growing.
Having six disciplines has really expanded the options for disabled players.
“That’s what we’re all about, hockey is for everyone,” O’Connor said. “Our goal is basically anybody that wants to play hockey no matter what differences you have, whatever it is, we want to find a way to make it happen. The more disciplines, the more people enjoying the game the better.”
Since 2018 is a Paralympic year — the Games are starting one month prior to the Disabled Hockey Festival — Smith believes the festival will garner more interest from the general public and bring them out to the event.
“My experience is that every time somebody sees some of these different disciplines on the ice, like sled hockey for example, they just fall in love with it,” Smith said. “They’re like, ‘Wow. I never knew you could do that.’ And now with the blind hockey, it’s similar to that because when you say blind hockey, ‘Well, how does that work?’ But when they go out and watch it, they watch the athleticism of these players and they’re like, ‘Wow. You can play this sport if you’re blind.’”
With the Disabled Hockey Festival continuing to grow, volunteers are still in need. Anyone interested in helping out can email Malisa at email@example.com. Any companies or organizations interested in being an event sponsor should contact Svac at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any players who are looking to register for the event can head to the Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival website. Also, there is a fundraiser page (donate here) set up for anyone who would like to donate money. All proceeds go directly to the athletes in the event.
Svac encourages everyone to come check out the phenomenal athletes who will compete at this year’s festival.
“I think they’ll be surprised,” Svac said. “I think perception is because they’re athletes with disabilities they’re expectation may be that it’s a lot of handholding, a lot of slower pace and so forth. This is real competitive hockey. In every division and every level these are athletes coming out to compete to represent their teams and have fun at the same time.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.