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Lightning sled hockey team to compete in Nashville

The squad, as part of a record 24-team field, will participate in a national tournament this weekend.

by Bryan Burns /

Tucked away beside large hockey equipment bags and partially obscured behind a handful of randomly-placed sticks, a framed photograph sits on the desk of Kristen Bowness.

In the picture, Bowness holds up one corner of a banner that reads: 2016 National Champions.

In front of her, nine children sit on sleds, their faces all smiles as they surround a trophy nearly as high as the team's tallest member.

"We had so much fun," Bowness remembered.

In April, Bowness, the Tampa Bay Lightning's community hockey coordinator and sled hockey head coach, won her first championship, guiding a youth team to the title at the 2016 Disabled Hockey Festival in Fraser, Michigan. The team was a mix of Tampa Bay area players as well as children from a sled hockey program on Florida's Space Coast.

The picture sits on her desk as a constant reminder of the impact that tournament had on the lives of all involved.

"It was such a cool experience," Bowness said.

The daughter of Tampa Bay Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, Kristen will get another chance to add to her coaching resume when she guides an adult sled hockey team at this weekend's seventh annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL and hosted by the Nashville Predators at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch, Tennessee.

The Lightning team competes in Tier V and will play two Pool A games on Friday. Tampa Bay goes up against host Nashville at noon (eastern) before taking on Pittsburgh at 6:45 p.m.

The knockout stage starts Saturday, and the championship games will be played Sunday.

The Lightning are looking for improvement after finishing 1-3 at last year's tournament.

"It's a great tournament because all the players create such a bond with one another," Bowness said. "You can see the relationships form, which is cool, and it's just fun to see everybody hanging out and mingling with one another."

A record 24-team field featuring 300-plus athletes across five different levels will compete at this weekend's tournament. Each team is affiliated with a NHL club and wears their parent club's jersey and logos.

The Lightning sled team has been practicing every other Sunday for an hour and 15 minutes at the Clearwater Ice Arena to prepare for the tournament. Declan Farmer and Chris Douglas, a pair of local sled hockey Paralympic gold medalists, often attend practices to help teach.

"We're only going to have probably two extra skaters on our bench, so I'm a little worried," Bowness said. "We'll see how well that goes."

Sled hockey plays similar to ice hockey with the exception being some of the equipment used. Players sit in specially designed sleds that are held up and maneuver around the ice by two hockey skate blades. Participants propel themselves by using a hockey stick in each hand, sticks that have metal picks on the butt end to grab the ice.
The Lightning have continued expanding their sled hockey program, joining the recently-formed Southeast Sled Hockey League that includes teams from the Space Coast, Carolina, Atlanta, Virginia Beach and Knoxville.

"We'll play three or four tournaments a year with them and then this classic too," Bowness said.

Kristen's father Rick is in his fourth season as associate coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He has more than 27 years of NHL coaching experience and has served as the head coach for the Winnipeg Jets (1998-99), Boston Bruins (1991-92), Ottawa Senators (1992-96), New York Islanders (1996-98) and Phoenix Coyotes (2003-04).

Asked if she consults with her admittedly more experienced father for coaching advice or to diagram new plays, Kristen chuckled.

"We're still worried about positioning," she said. "If I can get my left winger to stay on the left side it'll be a good game."

The majority of the players competing for the Lightning at this weekend's tournament have only recently gotten involved in hockey.

"A lot of them don't really know hockey, but a lot of disabled programs don't fund everything totally and we fund everything totally," Bowness said. "So a lot of people are jumping in, and they've never watched a hockey game. They're still learning the rules, which is why we're still a Tier 4 team, but we're getting there."

The Lightning hope to take the next step this weekend with another championship trophy and one more picture for Bowness to place on her office desk.

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