Among those teaching new players the basics of the game was Sarah Bettencourt, founder of San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey and a member of the U.S. Women's Development Sled Hockey Team. Sarah suffers from a rare neurological disorder that forced her to retire as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps almost a decade ago. But she first learned about sled hockey in 2014 and quickly fell in love with the sport.
"At the time, the Ducks didn't have a sled hockey team and there was no sled hockey in the San Diego area, Bettencourt said, "so I founded the San Diego Ducks with the help of the Anaheim Ducks because I saw the potential and I love this sport so much. This sport just make me smile and happy and brings us all together. I love it, and I wanted to give that energy, that joy, that passion to so many other people."
Her goal through events like the Sled Hockey Festival is to make other people with disabilities aware of the joys of sled hockey.
"Everyone sees that they can play a team adaptive sport where no one looks at you and says, 'Oh you're disabled. Poor you. Can I help you? What can I do for you?'" she said. "Instead I look at you as a hockey player, and if you're my opponent and you have the puck, I'm gonna check you. If you're my teammate, I'm gonna get open and you're gonna pass it and I'm gonna score. That's what it's about. It's a great equalizer and we love that so much.
"Now with this amazing free Try Sled Hockey clinic, we have so many people telling me, 'I loved it. How do I do this again? Where can I play? How do I get on a team? They're asking detailed questions about getting a sled, getting sticks. It's amazing. They felt the energy and the passion and the love of this sport, and you can see it on their faces."
Aaron Loy is a teammate of Bettencourt's on the San Diego Ducks who lost his legs several years ago but found a tremendous outlet in sled hockey and passed on that passion at the festival last weekend.
"We're having a good time introducing the sport to Orange County," Loy said. "It's so cool to see new youth players trying hockey for the first time, and they're having a blast. There were a lot of people out on the ice today, and the first few minutes I saw adults and children trying it for the first time, and most of them looked a tiny bit timid. But then after 10 minutes, we were playing the puck with them and teaching them how to skate, and halfway through you could see the smiles on the faces. They talked about how fun the sport was and they wanted to come back again."
That tentative start in the sport is something Loy said he could relate to at one point in his life.
"When I first started playing sled hockey, I was very timid to try a new adaptive sport because I had recently lost my legs," he said. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to try it or tell my family and friends about it because not a lot of people played hockey in Southern California. I just want to tell people they should come out and try it. It's a blast, it's up and coming and it's growing. After you try it a few times, you will fall in love with it."
Bettencourt said she saw that almost immediately after the clinic. "I can't tell you how many parents came up to me just today with tears in their eyes saying, 'Thank you for giving this opportunity to my child. I didn't realize my child could make friends like these, lifelong friends. And I didn't realize I could meet other hockey moms or hockey dads. And now we have something to talk about. When we're having a bad day, we have other people to lean on too.'"
Among those parents on Saturday was Michael Miller, who took part in Try Sled Hockey with his young son Joshua. "I'm blown away by what's available, that organizations and going and doing things like this," Michael said. "When I was Joshua's age, I didn't know about anything like this. If I was going to play sports, I was going to play alongside everybody else as best as I could, and I ended up not getting into organized sports. I love that it's different now. To have opportunities like this, to come out and play sled hockey, it's pretty amazing.
"I love being able to do a sport with my son. To be able to do this with him was a real blessing and an amazing opportunity. It was a beautiful moment, and we thank the Ducks for making it possible."
Team USA Paralympic gold medalist Ralph DeQuebec was a special guest at the festival, helping coach on-ice sled events and interacting with participants. A Purple Heart Recipient, Marine Gunnery Sergeant DeQuebec is a bilateral above-knee amputee after sustaining an injury in Afghanistan while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012. The Harbor City, Calif. native earned a gold medal with the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team in Pyeongchang and was a member of the U.S. Men's Development Sled Team from 2014-17.
Jesse Chatfield is the Director of Marketing for The Rinks program, which was launched by the Ducks organization in 2009 and now consists of eight local ice and inline facilities throughout Southern California. He says the existence of the Great Park Ice facility (which opened to the public earlier this year) allows so much more potential for growing the game.
"The organizational support from our owners down to our players being involved in these programs is huge," Chatfield said. "It only creates new opportunities for people to develop a passion for the sport. That was the goal of this rink, to build it big with four sheets, it gives us room to expand pilot programs where in the past we just didn't have the capacity to do it. This rink is centrally located in Orange County and it's easy to get to from San Diego, LA, Riverside County. It really allows us to pilot these programs in a central location in a beautiful building. It's a great resource to have."
One of those programs going on this weekend at Great Park Ice was the Try Warrior Hockey clinic. USA Hockey's Warrior Hockey Discipline is dedicated to injured and disabled U.S. Military Veterans discharged under honorable or general conditions. As one of the Disabled Hockey Section's newest disciplines, the Warrior Hockey Discipline is growing across the country. While some of the participants played hockey prior to being injured, many try it for the first time for therapeutic reasons. The Ducks' goal is to bring access to this new discipline here in Orange County to help build a community for local members of our armed forces.
"We're trying to introduce new players to the sport who may not have had the ability to try it or even know that it was available to them," Chatfield said. "The Warrior program is a discipline that is growing throughout the country, and here in Southern California, we have a lot of military veterans, so it seems like a natural program to pilot here. That was the goal, to create a culture with the veteran community and offer another outlet for them to come together.
"It's really exciting to see the turnout today and the potential here. The smiles on the participants faces as they got out, most of them it was the first time on the ice. It's all about having fun, creating a sense of community and determining if there is the demand to grow a program here in Orange County. Based on what we saw today, it looks like there is."
Heading up that clinic was Michael Vaccaro, a USA Hockey Disabled/Warrior Rep who himself is a military veteran who found solace in the game.
"All over the United States there are teams popping up for disabled veterans, but in Southern California, with so many military bases close by, this is a great opportunity to build a bridge in the relationship between the military and the civilian population," Vaccaro said. "It's just really great to see the Anaheim Ducks stepping up and helping out. I know these veterans are going to get something more than just a free jersey out of this. They're going to get some camaraderie and some bonding, and I think it's going to help them grow.
"Veterans that recently came back from war, Vietnam veterans, etc. We're getting different age groups together, and it's great to see everybody talking in the locker room about their military experience and get together and help each other out."
Vaccaro says that every Warrior team has at least a few players who "really stick out with a story of how hockey has changed them to the better." His own story starts when he came home from a tour in Iraq and ultimately elected to enter into therapy through the VA. "That wasn't working, but I found this hockey program in Washington DC, started playing hockey with them, started helping out with sled hockey and it helped me. My medication went down, my family life improved, everything just came together. Now every time I'm on the ice, it's like there's nothing else out there. When I'm on the ice, nothing bothers me, nothing can go wrong. I'm in my comfort zone. All our veterans feel the same way when they're on the ice with other veterans."
One of Vaccaro's pupils at Great Park Ice was Marvin Dubon, a Marine veteran who previously played some street hockey as a teenager but was ice skating for the first time on Saturday.
"I'm getting the maximum learning experience, and all the guides are very helpful," he said. "I'm loving this. I'm really excited if this is going to be something that is going to continue here. I'm really grateful that I'm aware of it now. Having the camaraderie of other veterans is something vital for me that I missed before, and now I'm just very grateful to have it again."
That solidarity is just another example of how programs like Warrior Hockey and Sled Hockey expand well beyond the confinements of the ice rink.
"It's more than just playing a sport," said Bettencourt, who was named USA Hockey's 2016 Disabled Athlete of the Year and still serves as director, manager and captain of the San Diego Ducks sled hockey. "We create a family environment, and on the ice they're your teammates. But when you get off the ice, you have brothers and sisters, you have friends, people who can be there for you no matter what. All the practices, all the locker room chalk talks, all the traveling has just brought everyone closer, and you can see it. Even as opponents, we're all in the same boat and we're all there to support each other."