From March 28-31, AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel was taken over by USA Hockey for the 15th annual Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival. The event featured 105 teams coming to Pasco County for tournaments in the disciples of Disabled Hockey, including Blind, Deaf/Hard of Hearing, Special, Standing/Amputee & Warrior. The tournaments and championships for Sled Hockey will take place from April 4-7, split between AdventHealth Center Ice and Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex in Manatee County.
The Disabled Hockey Festival, supported by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida, and Experience Florida’s Sports Coast (Pasco County government's tourism bureau), featured events for the public to participate, such as the chance to try sled hockey. Final numbers will come in later, but it is expected the event will generate 1,200 hotel room nights in the area.
Friday night included a welcome social for participants and a game of Lightning Alumni versus the national Standing/Amputee team. The Lightning Alumni team featured hockey Hall of Famer and captain of the Bolts 2004 Stanley Cup team Dave Andreychuk. Other well-known alumni included Brian Bradley. Jassen Cullimore and Stan Neckar. Sonya Bryson-Kirksey sang the national anthem before the game, as she does before each Lightning home game at Amalie Arena.
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore, along with Andreychuck, USA Hockey President Jim Smith and USA Hockey Disabled Section Chair J.J. O'Connor welcomed attendees to the area at the social. Moore later dropped the ceremonial puck before the game in front of Andreychuk and David Levesque, captain of the National Standing/Amputee team.
“Pasco County is Florida’s Sports Coast and we are thrilled to be the first in the state to host the Disabled Hockey Festival,” Commissioner Moore said. “I am honored to participate in an event that shows anybody can participate and be included. I thank USA Hockey for their commitment to the disabled community and coming to Wesley Chapel.” Moore also chairs Pasco County’s Tourist Development Council.
Sonya Bryson-Kirksey sings the national anthem before the Lightning Alumni vs. Standing/Amputee team
The Warrior Hockey discipline is relatively new and features disabled/injured members or former members of the United States military. While separate from the USA Hockey event in Wesley Chapel, Tampa is hosting the Department of Defense's Warrior Games in June 2019, organized by MacDill Air Force Base's Special Operations Command with numerous other sports for disabled military members.
Tampa Bay is well known in the sled hockey world as the home of Declan Farmer, two-time Paralympic gold medalist as a member of Team USA in the sport. The six disciplines of Disabled Hockey feature adaptations to make hockey available to anyone. Some adaptations include lights flickering for whistles during deaf/hard of hearing games, and a puck that makes noise for blind hockey.
“The Disabled Hockey Festival is one of my favorite weeks of the year and in 2019 we get the nice warm weather outside with perfect ice rinks on the inside. These two weekends are the culmination of a lot of hard work from teams, players and parents, volunteers and staff,” Toyota-USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival organizer and Chairman of USA Hockey Disabled Section J.J. O’Connor said. “It’s really a celebration of fun, enjoyment and quality of life. It’s so much more than just a sport. If everyone can make it through these two weekends having fun, then the weekend has been a success and hockey is truly for everybody.”
The National Standing/Amputee team being introduced before the game against Lightning Alumni
Pasco County’s tourism bureau recently re-branded as Experience Florida’s Sports Coast, with a focus on hosting both competitive sports tournaments and promoting leisure activities such as fishing, hiking and kayaking. You can learn more by visiting their website at flsportscoast.com.
USA Hockey is the national governing body for the sport, including running development programs and national teams that compete in international tournaments such as the Olympics. The U.S. Women’s National Hockey team trained at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel before their gold medal run in the 2018 Olympics. You can learn more by visiting their website at USAHockey.com.
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All photos taken by Andy Taylor