At the beginning of each and every season, the most common goal for any NHL franchise is to bring home the Stanley Cup for the fans of its community.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are certainly no exception, but the team’s ability to make a difference in the lives of others is certainly not dependent on just what it accomplishes on the ice, but away from the playing surface as well.
Through the help of a young man named Travis Leigh and the Lightning Sled Hockey Program, which he himself established, the Lightning organization continues to impact its own community, as well motivate individuals in other locations to do the same.
Inspired by his hometown Bolts as a teenager, Leigh found his passion for the game of hockey at a young age, but often found it difficult to skate as a result of suffering from cerebral palsy. Rather than giving up so quickly, Leigh ultimately stayed involved with the sport in other ways, including one of which in particular that now serves as an outlet for thousands of disabled athletes around the United States.
Sled hockey players took to the ice in a matchup following a Lightning home game vs. Pittsburgh last month
Rather than using their legs to skate, competitors sled with the assistance of two regulation-size hockey-skate blades attached to the bottom of a metal frame. Instead of gripping a single stick, the athletes are given two, equipped with ice picks on the side opposite the blade, which are about one-third the regulation size and 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 above all else, the same passion.
“I always felt like I wanted to be out there,” Leigh said. “Hockey is my life, and I’ve always known I wanted to be a part of it.”
After two years with the California-based sled club, Leigh approached the Lightning about a possible internship opportunity in 2006, where he first pitched the idea of putting a sled hockey team in Tampa Bay.
“It was something I had wanted to do for a long time,” Leigh added. “I was very surprised to find that the people at the Lightning were positive about it. I was so used to getting told no.”
Because of Leigh’s diligent efforts, and through the facilitation of the Lightning Foundation, Tampa Bay became the first-ever NHL franchise to sponsor a sled hockey club. The program has since grown and other teams have also caught on, with each doing their individual parts in establishing their own sled hockey programs and community hockey outreach initiatives.
USA Hockey, for one, has since established the Hockey Sled Classic, a tournament between NHL- affiliated teams. The competition found immediate success in just its first year, gathering 46 players on clubs affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks. One year later, that number more than doubled as the Flyers hosted approximately 100 participants in just the second annual tournament.
Perhaps the culmination of the growth of the game and its wild popularity came most recently just on Sunday, when the Lightning Sled Hockey Program was featured on a national television broadcast on NBC as part of USA Hockey’s Hockey Weekend Across America celebration.
“The program as a whole is very inspiring,” said Rich Schukay, whose business serves as a sponsor of the Lightning Sled Hockey Program. “We get quite a few participants who are passionate about the game of hockey and who are excited to share that passion with others who feel just the same. I really think that shows what a community can accomplish when everyone comes together.”