CHICAGO -- Harry Benson raised his arms in celebration while his Tampa Bay Lightning sled hockey teammates mobbed him moments after their 1-0 shootout victory against the Dallas Stars.
A goalie from Orlando, Florida, he didn't allow any goals in four games to help the Lightning to the Tier IV title at the USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL, at MB Ice Arena on Sunday. For Benson, who has spina bifida, the crowd was welcome.
"I don't care how many sleds slam into me," said Benson, 47, who's been playing sled hockey for nine years. "All that [game] pressure's off you. It's the greatest feeling."
It was a great weekend for the Lightning, whose Tier V team won 5-2 against the Nashville Predators in the final. The Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Colorado Avalanche 8-2 to win the Tier I title for the second consecutive year. The Predators won Tier II, defeating the Edmonton Oilers 5-1, and the Philadelphia Flyers won Tier III with a 6-3 win against Edmonton.
But more than winning, the classic, which began with four teams in 2010 and has grown to 31 this year, has been about opportunity and camaraderie, embodying the Hockey is for Everyone initiative. USA Hockey Disabled Section chair J.J. O'Connor said this year's event was "fantastic."
"The players all played hard, I saw a lot of smiles on people's faces and there was a lot of hard hitting and competitiveness," said O'Connor, the namesake for the O'Connor Courage Trophy, awarded to the Tier I champion. "It was a hockey tournament, just as it should be."
Erika Mitchell, a defenseman for the Blackhawks Tier I team, has played in the classic since its inception. The Chicago native has played sled hockey for 23 years and is amazed by its growth.
"I think there were 20 teams when I first started. Now at our nationals last year, we had about 90-something teams there," said Mitchell, 31, who has caudal regression syndrome, in which the bones in the lower spine are usually missing or misshapen. "That's exciting, just to see the sport grow."
Many players talked of the positives sled hockey has brought them. Ben Maenza, 30, is a defenseman for the Predators Tier II team. A native of Brentwood, Tennessee, he lost both of his legs when an improvised explosive device (IED) was triggered in Afghanistan on Oct. 21, 2010. He originally tried wheelchair basketball but didn't love it. Sled hockey was a different story.
"Hockey saves lives. It's for real," said Maenza, who's been playing for four years. "For me, personally, overcoming injuries, you can get down. I hear people who would get stuck on the couch, being sad at home. Getting out here, building the team camaraderie, exercise, getting aggression out. You can get all kinds of stuff from sled hockey, and that's why I love it. And our team, man, they're my brothers."
Tamar Burr, 36, has had the same experience. A forward for the Dallas Stars Tier IV team, Burr was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency in her left leg, a defect in which the upper part of the femur bone is either malformed or missing. Burr has had 31 surgeries since age 13; she's having another to take more bone off her leg within the next month.
Burr said sled hockey, which she's played for four years, has been, "a major outlet."
"It lets you get your aggression out on the ice and you know what? No jail time: just a two-minute penalty and you're done," Burr said with a laugh. "People are starting to focus on being all inclusive, which means hockey is for everyone. The NHL teams are really starting to support [sled hockey], and that's mind blowing. It's so liberating to see such support come from the NHL teams and be able to have this event."
The next sled hockey classic will be in St. Louis in November; specific dates have yet to be determined. O'Connor expects the growth of the tournament and the game to continue.
That's great news for the players, who have found an athletic outlet, friendships and happiness with sled hockey.
"It's freedom," Benson said. "Honestly, I don't care if I ever walk again. I'd love to be able to stand up, but when we're on the ice, nobody cares about chairs, about amputees or whatever the disability is. We're all hockey players, and it's just one big, gigantic family."
Video: Campbell discusses the 2019 USA Hockey Sled Classic