While the upcoming USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, (“Sled Classic”) may only be in its eighth year, the collaborative event has already made a monumental impact on sled hockey.
The Sled Classic, which only allows teams associated with an NHL franchise to participate, is set to begin Thursday, Nov. 16, and conclude on Sunday, Nov. 19 with all of the games being held at Plymouth Ice Center in Plymouth, MN. For the players participating, it will be an opportunity to once again don the color of their local, and often times, favorite NHL team to compete against the top sled players from across the country.
“Just like any boy growing up or any girl growing up or anybody, you always want to be a part of the NHL,” said USA Hockey Disabled Section chair JJ O’Connor. “You want to be a part of the best league. Sled players are no different, and sled administrators or organizers are no different.”
When the first Sled Classic was held in 2010, it was really the result of a burgeoning partnership between USA Hockey and the NHL to enhance hockey in the United States. The NHL was developing its Hockey is for Everyone initiative, and the two were in the process of promoting November as Come Play Hockey Month.
Together, USA Hockey and the NHL saw an opportunity to expand their reach in both areas by hosting a major sled hockey event.
“There weren’t many teams at that point that were associated with their NHL team,” said O’Connor. “We knew we had to start somewhere. We had four teams in 2010 at that first event, and this year we have 20 NHL teams represented and 28 teams total.”
The Minnesota Wild, which is helping host the event in Plymouth this year, is one of the many NHL clubs that has taken on a larger role in disabled hockey since the inaugural Sled Classic. In 2013, the Wild announced a partnership with the Minnesota Sled Hockey Association (MSHA), now known as Minnesota Wild Sled Hockey, to send a team to the Sled Classic. Fast forward to 2017 and the Minnesota Wild is serving as the host and will be represented by two teams at the event.
“I can’t say enough about the Minnesota Wild,” said O’Connor. “They’re a perfect example of an NHL team that has embraced disabled hockey and is supporting it. They’re one of the leaders in the country, no doubt, in their support of disabled hockey.”
The Wild is far from the only NHL club to take on a more active role though. Since 2010, NHL clubs have become more and more involved in disabled hockey as a whole. The first step for many was supporting a sled hockey team in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, but now, there are franchises supporting special hockey, Warrior hockey and even blind hockey.
Rise of Sled Hockey
The support of the NHL and its member clubs has helped increase the awareness and understanding of sled hockey throughout the country. In turn, that has led to more interest and more opportunities for people to get involved.
“Each year, we have a record number of teams,” said O’Connor. “This year we have more than last year. Last year we had more than the year prior and so forth and so on.”
In addition to seeing the number of teams rise year after year, O’Connor points to a personal encounter after the U.S. Men’s Sled Hockey team won gold in the 2014 Paralympics as an example of how sled hockey has gained popularity in the U.S.
Not long after returning home from Russia, O’Connor was wearing a USA Hockey sweatshirt with sled hockey on it at the grocery store. Out of nowhere, an older woman who worked at the store approached him and immediately began excitedly rehashing Josh Sweeney’s winning goal in the gold medal game. When she learned he was heavily involved with the sport, she went on and on asking questions about how to see more sled hockey and Josh Sweeney.
It’s the type of thing that wouldn’t have happened after the 2010 Olympics, even though Team USA won a gold medal that year too.
“I was smiling ear to ear because I was just in a grocery store, and you wouldn’t necessarily think this lady would be watching hockey,” said O’Connor. “Little snippets of things like that are a testament of the growth.”
In Minnesota, that growth can quantified too. During the 2012-13 season, there were a total of 35 sled hockey players in Minnesota registered under a single sled hockey program. Over the four seasons since the Minnesota Wild became more involved, two new sled hockey programs have been launched (Hope Inc. in Moorhead and Rochester Mustangs), and the number of registered sled players reached 80 last year.
“In the hockey community at least, most people know of or have seen it,” said O’Connor. “Now, even more people, who have no involvement in hockey whatsoever are starting to see sled hockey.“
Sky is the Limit
The exciting part is the incredible growth the sport has seen over the past few years could be just the beginning.
“It’s a sport that people are interested in,” said O’Connor. “All of the attributes that make regular NHL hockey fun to watch are there in sled hockey. People enjoy watching it. It’s exciting to see.”
With USA Hockey and the NHL working together, the potential for sled hockey, as well as the other disabled hockey disciplines, could be bigger than people may have imagined just ten years ago.
“I think people are starting to realize that hockey is for everyone,” said O’Connor. “All of these things have aligned to really grow sled hockey and disabled hockey across the country, and I think it’s going to continue.”
Regardless of how high the ceiling truly is for sled hockey, one thing is for sure. The Sled Classic, and the support of the NHL, will continue to play a critical role.