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Dreams Realized Through Sled Hockey Program

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning
photo credit: Carl Wagenfohr

The gift began as a thoughtful act of goodwill rooted deep in the bottom of one man’s heart. It came to fruition as it crossed through the imagination, held no regard for a physical or mental ailment, and culminated in reality as the centerpiece that now provides passionate hockey fans in Tampa Bay with their very own rink of dreams. There is no miracle man like Herb Brooks, but instead the young Travis Leigh and the countless disabled athletes who now reap the benefits of his vision.

Lightning Video - Sled Hockey

I've always felt like I wanted to be out there. Hockey is my life, and I've always wanted to be a part of it. Travis Leigh

The gift began as an idea; a sled hockey program fostered by the Lightning Foundation that gives physically and developmentally challenged athletes the opportunity to play the game they love despite a disability.

“When you see the athletes come in to play sled hockey, and you see how excited they are to be part of the Lightning and to just be on the ice, it kind of seems like our sled hockey program erases some of their disabilities and levels the playing field,” Lightning Manager of Community Relations and Youth Development Mark Sofia said. “It gives them the opportunity as athletes to pursue their athletic abilities and to instantly become engaged in the program.”

Travis Leigh believed. In a metropolis that is often discredited, overlooked and underappreciated as a fanatical hotbed for the game of hockey, the Lightning’s sled hockey program is serious about developing and promoting the game for those who have all but given up on their dream to race blue line to blue line across the ice.

“Cerebral palsy affects people in different ways,” Leigh said.  “For me, it affects my motor skills in my legs and it affects my balance. But I’ve always felt like I wanted to be out there. Hockey is my life, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of it. 

“What I’ve wanted for a long time is to put a sled hockey team in Tampa. I was very surprised when the Lightning were positive about it. I was so used to people saying no.”

A Sled and Two Ice Pick Sticks

Rather than skate, the athletes sled with the assistance of two regular-sized hockey-skate blades attached to the bottom of a metal frame. Rather than one stick, they have two which are about one-third the regulation size. The sticks are equipped with ice picks on the side opposite the blade which are used to propel the sleds across the rink. Aside from the subtle nuances in the equipment used, sled hockey incorporates the same puck, the same pace, and the same passion.

“When you see how stoked these athletes are when they go on the ice, and even when they come off the ice, it makes all the planning it takes to put it on all worth-while,” Sofia said.

And why shouldn’t it? Like the athletes who participate in the Lightning Foundation’s Sled Hockey Program, there are others who enjoy the game just as much.  The unfortunate thing is that most of the cities in which they live, some of which also host NHL franchises, do not offer such programs.

Origins of the Program

“I had never heard of sled hockey before, and the Lightning Foundation actually approached me and got me involved in it,” Rich Schukay, President of C&E Information Services, Inc., the program’s sponsor, said. “I was initially interested, but then as I went to the first practice, it took about two minutes to see how much fun these athletes were having and immediately I was hooked.”

And yet, despite some franchises still having no involvement in sled hockey, disabled athletes still have reason to believe. Travis Leigh’s story and the humble origins of the Lightning Foundation’s program have convinced them of that. Housed in a place that has built its reputation from its nickname as the Sunshine State, Tampa Bay might be considered one of the last places to ever find a sheet of ice, much less possess its very own NHL team. But the existence of the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise has proven that all things are possible. And to think, for sled hockey in Tampa Bay to become a reality, all it took was a pension of faith in others, a situation with a clear precedent, and a lofty proposal from a young man named Travis.

“Travis was a really passionate employee at the time when he came to us.  He really had this vision to enable this program, and for the Foundation to get the proper resources it needed to get sled hockey off the ground,” Executive Director of the Lightning Foundation Kasey Dowd Smith said. “Since then, he has remained a huge part in this program, and together with the Lightning Foundation, we’ve taken the approach of doing whatever we need to do to provide a place for this group to get on the ice and have a really enjoyable experience.”

Sled hockey programs have been incorporated into other NHL franchises in addition to the Tampa Bay Lightning, including clubs in Colorado, Buffalo, Phoenix, and New York among others. But while the Lightning Foundation’s sled hockey program is still in its infancy, its success so far can only mean it will get better with age.

A Continued Vision of Outreach and Engagement

“This will be the fourth year the Lightning Foundation has participated in the program. So far the reception has been outstanding. As soon as you see [the athletes] enter the building, you instantly see them light up and once they hop on their sled, it’s like they’re in their own world out there,” Dowd Smith added.

Although the program is less than five years old, it is already making large strides to grow the sport and to reach out to as many interested athletes as possible. As a supplement to numerous monthly practices and scrimmages at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Lightning Foundation hopes to field a sled hockey team which will participate in a national tournament in Maryland next spring.

“Our goal is to try and reach out locally to other organizations who might work with disadvantaged athletes and just to let them know that the program is here to try and recruit more players,” Sofia said.  “When some of the other NHL teams got word that we here with the Lightning had a sled hockey program, the reaction was more of how we could get some of our guys together and compete against some of the other athletes. I envision some big tournaments; two trips maybe up north or to play with some guys out west, and also globally. We’re trying to grow the game, not just throughout the NHL.”

And not just the game, but an interest and a reputation too. As for the latter, that shouldn’t be a problem.

“I thank the Lightning Foundation for getting me involved because it’s just such a fantastic thing to be involved with. They really do a great job,” Schukay added. “The program as a whole is very inspiring. We get quite a few volunteers and that really shows what a community can accomplish when everyone comes together.”

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