With the game between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS), it didn't take long for the League and Avalanche to agree on a project that would leave a lasting impression.
That project, a bench system for sled hockey players, was unveiled Wednesday at Sertich Ice Center in Colorado Springs.
"It was the NHL's idea to make the rinks accessible because they knew the history we had with our sled hockey team and Colorado was the first location of the first USA Hockey Sled Classic (in 2010)," said Deb Dowling, vice president of community relations for Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Avalanche.
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That led to the NHL working with Athletica Sport Systems, USA Hockey, the Avalanche and sled players to create a sled player bench prototype. The hope is that it will be able to impact the safety and gameplay experience for sled hockey players.
"The Avalanche were the first NHL team to partner with a sled hockey team, more than 10 years ago," Dowling said, "and we allow the sled hockey team to wear the Avalanche crest. The teams have grown from a youth team to two adult teams and a warrior team that are all involved. As a signature community partner of Kroenke Sports Charities, we provide them with annual funding to support the sled hockey program."
Creating a prototype for a new on-ice divider between players on the bench and those in the game was a challenge, especially when the concept was to not only improve safety and gameplay, but also to be cost-effective and manageable at already existing rinks, rather than transforming rinks around the product.
"We know from the history of the game that there's a lot of temporary setups for the sled game, especially for recreational usage, and that's always put in front of the player boxes and penalty boxes on the ice surface," said Reid Hart, sales manager for Athletica Sport Systems, which made the prototype bench. "There's never been a nice design to it; it's been too bulky or cumbersome (four feet tall), or not safe or easy to use.
"This is something that could potentially fit in any arena in the North American market and the world [and be] relatively cost-effective, and usable and friendly as well. Obviously we can't convert all these rinks to smaller rinks, so the way to make this happen would be something that can be done to not interfere with the regular flow of the day at an arena but also something that made the game for the people playing it to the best experience possible. Those were all big things we took into consideration when we were kind of looking at the design."
The new design is two feet tall, half the height of most current sled hockey benches, so players can see the game while on the bench. The benches fit five to eight players, and the door is also easier to use. It's also more compact and has rounded edges, meaning pucks remain in play more often and won't hit players not in the game.
"It's something that is relatively easy to set up, relatively quick, and it packs up pretty nice," Hart said. "It doesn't take up a lot of space and comes on an easily-accessible cart.
"We tweaked our cross-ice divider and worked with the NHL and the Avalanche and with Sled USA to get some feedback on the usage, what makes sense, where they want it, trying to make it safe as well as functional and not taking up a ton of space or protruding into areas where it affects the flow of the game."
It's also special for those in the area because it's the first legacy project the NHL has done in Colorado.
"When we had the Stadium Series game (at Coors Field) in Colorado in 2016, there was no Legacy Project, so it was really exciting to be a part of this project and be able to leave behind a gift to the community," Dowling said. "We whole-heartedly embraced the idea. Because it's the NHL legacy project, we wanted to make sure what they wanted to do to expand the game, we were here to support them."
In addition to the prototype unveiled Wednesday, sleds of various sizes (available to rent) as well as bundles of sticks were donated to enable the community to try the sport moving forward.
"There was a bunch of back and forth, probably three or four renderings as we kind of worked through the design," Hart said. "We used some of our expertise here but also suggestions from people that have more experience with this. A few different design tweaks and now we've come to the protype. We'll get more feedback in case we need anymore design changes to make it more usable and friendly."
The NHL doesn't just preach inclusion but takes actions to make sure the game is more available to those wanting to play. This year's legacy project is the latest example.
"Hockey's glidepath toward greater inclusion is accelerated through social innovation," said Kim Davis, NHL executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. "With this legacy project, we identified a challenge faced by disabled athletes in sled hockey and designed an infrastructure solution intended to improve gameplay, safety and equity in the sport."
USA Hockey couldn't be more pleased with how the project has turned out thus far and what it means for the future of sled hockey.
"I'm not surprised that the Colorado Avalanche were interested in leaving a legacy to improve the lives of athletes with disabilities, as they have been a huge supporter of the Hockey is for Everyone campaign for many years," said JJ O'Connor, Chair of USA Hockey's disabled hockey section. "The collaboration between the NHL, USA Hockey, and the Avalanche to provide a better, safer environment will be paramount in providing additional opportunities at many more rinks across the country and worldwide."
It also is an easy, interlocking setup that can be installed in minutes and doesn't require much storage space at the rink. The fact that no building renovation is needed means it could be finding its way into many rinks in the near future.
"I absolutely do see this being a breakthrough for sled hockey," Dowling said. "I think that because we've gone through some different versions of what the protype will be is that it's actually become much more in the affordable range than it was originally when we started the discussions and it also doesn't require a rink to make any structural changes. The rinks can purchase this new piece of equipment and relatively easily turn their rink into being handicapped accessible for clinics or for Learn to Play or Try Sled Hockey for Free Weekend -- and it's not astronomical, funding-wise or down time for a rink."