When J.J. O'Connor broke his neck, the result of a crash into the boards with a defenseman when he was 16, the hockey community embraced him.
They surrounded him, no one more so than Jim Smith, a longtime hockey official and then-secretary of USA Hockey who would go on to become president of the organization.
When O'Connor's parents weren't able to make the daily hour-long drive home from the rehabilitation hospital in Wheaton, Illinois, to the family's home in Chicago, Smith stepped in to offer his help. The pair bonded on those drives, helped by a jar of pickles and a bag of potato chips. Smith encouraged O'Connor to join him at USA Hockey meetings, where he could meet administrators and make connections.
"He just really wanted to see me succeed," O'Connor said.
When O'Connor, now 40, eventually graduated from Lake Forest College, Smith suggested that there could be a role for him, since USA Hockey was looking for someone to head their disabled hockey section. O'Connor was elected and has been the chair ever since, working to improve programming and access to hockey for the disabled.
This week, the NHL is recognizing all six disabled hockey disciplines -- sled hockey, special hockey, blind hockey, deaf/hard of hearing hockey, warrior hockey and standing amputee hockey. Sled hockey is played on sleds that sit on top of two hockey skate blades; special hockey is designed to accommodate people with physical and developmental disabilities; warrior hockey is for current or former members of the Armed Forces who meet one of a number of criteria.
The access to disabled hockey programming has grown dramatically under O'Connor's leadership, with blind hockey and warrior hockey coming into the fold, along with developing a youth sled hockey program. With help from Corey Fairbanks, the executive director of the Colorado Adaptive Sports Foundation, O'Connor created USA Hockey Sled Classic presented by the NHL, which concluded its 10th annual tournament on Nov. 24.
The Sled Classic is an annual round-robin tournament between NHL-affiliated sled hockey teams, with the players getting to wear official NHL jerseys during the event.
"I learned after getting hurt and playing the game and loving the game that the next best thing to playing the game is to help others and do what you can so that other people can enjoy the game," O'Connor said. "There's certainly gratification in watching the sport grow, watching people with disabilities [who] probably never would have thought that they could play hockey, now have that opportunity.
"To have a part in making that a possibility and to watch the sport grow, I couldn't be happier."
O'Connor has seen a dramatic increase in the public's awareness of sled hockey, something that was never more evident than shortly after the 2014 Winter Paralympics, held in Sochi, Russia, and won by the United States. O'Connor was grocery shopping in the Chicago area, wearing a USA Hockey shirt, and a woman who worked there saw him, stopped him, and enthused about Joshua Sweeney's goal in the gold medal game, a 1-0 win against Russia.
"The amount of awareness and knowledge of just the general community, and certainly the hockey community, of sled hockey is so much greater than when we first got started," he said. "Now all of a sudden we're not just some small little program. Now we're actually a force."
It helped turn on a light bulb for O'Connor. His work was helping. The sport was growing.
"They say a lot of times that things happen for a reason," O'Connor said. "And I don't know, maybe the reason that I got hurt was so that I could be there to help make others enjoy the sport that I love."