NASHVILLE -- The beautiful thing about hockey is that it's a game meant for everyone to enjoy, regardless of where you come from or what your story is.
Nobody embodies the beauty of the game more than sled hockey players.
Nashville is hosting the seventh annual USA Hockey Sled Classic presented by the NHL at Ford Ice Center in Antioch, Tennessee, a tournament that runs through Sunday. There are 17 NHL teams represented in and 24 total teams.
When the tournament began in 2010, there were four teams. The turnout shows how much sled hockey has grown in recent years and the impact it has had.
"An event like this shows me the power and privilege we have at the NHL to really bring the sport of hockey to everyone," said Jessica Berman, NHL vice president of special projects and corporate social responsibility. "We like to say hockey is for everyone, and watching this sled tournament, hearing the stories from each of the players here, each of whom has the most amazing story, shows me how hockey can really transcend your life in teaching you life skills that go way beyond the game itself.
"But even within the game itself, just the ability to bring to the disabled community the opportunity to have that physical activity is such a gift. For sure, we're happy to support it."
Sports, in its purest form, are used to get away from the everyday rigors and challenges of life. That is especially true for sled hockey players like Marcela Turnege, who face challenges every day after life-changing injuries. Hockey is an escape.
"When I'm on the ice, everything disappears," Turnege said. "I don't have any problems, any pain, physical or emotional pain. Everything goes away. It's about the moment. It's about skating, trying to play with your teammates, catch the puck, score a goal. So that's what it is."
Joseph Woodke, Ben Maenza and John Curtin are playing on the Tier III team for the Nashville Predators. They are former Marines who developed a bond under trying circumstances and have carried it to the ice.
"The three of us, we got to know each other in the military hospital," Woodke said. "We're all retired Marines, so we just became really close like that. We went through all of our rehab and everything together, learning to walk again.
"When we started playing sled hockey, we already had that bond between us. We knew how to push each other and how to make each other better. It's just like being back on a team in the Marines. We push each other. We tell each other when we're wrong. It's just like being in the Marines again. It's a strong brotherhood."
There are many people participating in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, each with their own challenges. However, once they're on the ice, everything is equal again and it's about enjoying the game.
"What I like about it is everyone here has got different kinds of difficulties or obstacles that they face on a daily basis out there on the ice," Maenza said. "We're all out there skating hard, playing hard, competitive again and moving fast. We're breaking down walls that otherwise would be there."
Curtin said sled hockey is something that is life-changing. Instead of letting a disability get him down, he chose sled hockey as an outlet with his friends and to use his athleticism and aggression in a positive way playing a sport he loves.
"It's nice to see a bunch of people come together through all of the different trials and tribulations and different stories that they have," Curtin said. "They come together just to have fun in the sport and compete again and be competitive and get that aggression out that they might have from just their situation and stuff in the most productive manner. It's really good to just see everyone do that."
It doesn't take long when watching a sled hockey game to realize it's very intense. It's full checking style appeals to the players, hockey that requires a lot of skill and endurance.
Sled hockey is an outlet for people who previously believed they would never be able to play the sport again. They come to a place and realize it is possible to participate in a contact sport they love. That realization is important to the NHL.
"We know that sports brings people confidence and makes people feel accomplished," Berman said. "I think there are so many opportunities for people with disabilities to play our sport. We also know that it's recognized by everyone from the NHL, NHL teams, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, as an accepted form of hockey, so you know when you play sled hockey that you're a part of the hockey community."
The participants in the USA Hockey Sled Classic inspire anyone who watches them. There are so many life lessons to be learned from their determination, but resiliency is one that sticks out to onlookers at Ford Ice Center.
"Just to never give up," said Michael Reed, a coach of the Sled Preds team. "These [players] have every reason just to sit at home and not do anything, but they're out here pushing themselves harder each and every single day. It's just taught me, just don't give up. You can keep pushing yourself."