Kevin McKee wore his No. 88 Blackhawks sweater with particular pride last weekend.
No doubt, the 29-year-old gold medal winner and his teammates made their namesakes proud by winning a second straight USA Hockey Sled Classic Tier 1 championship.
"For us, the (NHL) Blackhawks are huge. Especially since they help us with funding," McKee said. "Just to be able to give back and have the success that we have has been important. It's great to be able to show them that we're athletes and we are competing hard. Just to kind of grow the sport. It's cool to have their name, too. We are pretty lucky having them as a sponsor and have those great experiences, traveling different places, too. That's huge for us."
The ninth annual event attracted a record 30 sled hockey teams associated with 20 NHL organizations to the MB Ice Arena. Other sled team title winners were Nashville, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay. Johnny's Ice House also was used for some of the competition.
Former Blackhawks star and current hockey and business operations liason Brian Campbell took part in the presentation of the O'Connor Courage Trophy to the winning team - that also included Justin Kreger, Joseph Gugliotta, Brody Roybal, Travis Dodson, Frank Pierson, Erica Mitchell and Walter Wyder - following the 8-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche representative.
In addition to McKee, Roybal and Dodson helped the United States claim a third straight gold medal at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Clearly, sled hockey competition means a great deal to McKee, who has devoted much of his life to the sport.
"Sled hockey definitely has been huge on and off the ice," said McKee, who was born with sacral agenesis (absence of tailbone region). "Before playing this sport, I didn't have that confidence off the ice. It has definitely boosted my confidence. Hockey has pretty much saved my life. It has taken me so many places."
Last Friday, Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy, a seven-time National Team player, visited the MB Ice Arena to watch the Tier 1 and Tier IV Blackhawks sled teams play. Murphy even tried sled hockey himself for the first time along with Roybal. Murphy said he was amazed at the strength of the sled hockey players.
Josh Pauls, 26, a member of the St. Louis Blues sled hockey team, best described the essence of the adapted sport.
"Sled hockey, just as a general sport, is kind of a combination of hockey, bumper cars and Nordic skiing all roped into one," he said. "When we get into the Xs and 0s of it, there's really not a whole lot of difference. It's a lot more of a north-south game. It's a lot more slow just because the sleds don't have the same maneuverability as people on skates do. Or at least the elite people on skates do. So it tends to be a lot more straight-ahead and less re-grouping than you might see in the NHL."
Physical limitations necessitate more creativity on the part of sled hockey players. Paul was born without tibia bones and had both legs amputated when he was 10 months old.
"For us in sled hockey, our arms are our arms and our legs," Pauls said. "We have to use them to move and then we also have to use them to handle the puck. Being able to change directions, change speeds...a little bit tougher than your average person on skates. But we find ways to make it work. And there are some pretty talented guys who are out there that really make a difference and really kind of push the boundaries of what a sled hockey player is and what an elite category of sled player can look like."
Other sled teams that earned division titles over the weekend were the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals.
"Everybody wants to win," Pauls said. "We're not out here just for fun. If we were, we would play beer hockey at home and not traveling as far as some of these teams do. On the national level, it is extremely immense and it's ridiculous. The rivalries are all there between the U.S. and Canada. Even here, we want to beat the Blackhawks and the Blackhawks want to beat us just because it is the Chicago-St. Louis thing. But it is just like any other form of hockey, we want to win, we're coming to win. If we don't come out on top it is not the end of the world, but we're not coming here just to have a good time. We're coming here to show well, especially in front of the national team staff."
The tournament competition did not lack for physicality.
"Thankfully concussions aren't too big in this sport, at least from what I have seen at the different levels," Pauls said. "But shoulder injuries are pretty common. Honestly, it is just wear and tear on your upper body because the leg muscles and ligaments are much more powerful than your arms. We are basically using our arms as our legs. You have to make sure your wrists and your elbows and joints are all healthy and strong enough to support that weight and all the stress we put on them."
Pauls takes particular pride in being an advocate for inclusiveness in the sport of hockey as overall funds increase for equipment and accessibility.
"It has been awesome to see more and more (NHL) teams get involved and really push some of those funds onto those programs," he said. "When I first started out in 2010, the most we got from organizations was a couple of jerseys, or maybe they bought us a couple pairs of sticks. But now you see more and more teams fully sponsored by their local organizations. I was lucky enough last year to be named the "Hockey is for Everyone" ambassador, so that just speaks to the fact that...I was in the category with Harrison Browne (first openly transgender professional athlete) and Willie O'Ree (first black NHL player) and that's pretty good company to be keeping, just because what those two people have done for the sport. And all the rest of the ambassadors who were there to show that hockey is a sport that everybody can not only enjoy but everyone should have the chance to play regardless of age, gender, gender identity, or color or anything like that. If you want to play you should be able to play. That's kind of my theory on it. The NHL has done a great job in supporting that."