Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Kelsey McGuire

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Discover is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador. After a public voting period and votes from O'Ree, NHL executives and Discover executives, the winner will be announced in June. There will be a winner from the United States and one from Canada. Today, a look at one of three United States finalists, Kelsey McGuire:

Kelsey McGuire has two passions in her life: The Philadelphia Flyers and working with visually impaired and blind children.

Though the creation of Philadelphia Blind Hockey in 2022, the 29-year-old has managed to combine them into a growing organization that has seen 26 players throughout the region take part in the organization's programs.

That includes Learn to Play Blind Hockey clinics and the Gritty Gliders, a team for children 17 and under. An adult league is in the works for next season.

Through her work, McGuire was named one of three finalists for the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award in the United States. The winner, who will be named in June, will receive a $25,000 prize to be donated to the charity of their choice, with the other two finalists each receiving a $5,000 prize donated to a charity of their choice.

"Last year I was watching the NHL Awards and I saw the Willie O'Ree Award and the different people that were nominated, and I was like, one day I want to win this award," McGuire said. "I never thought that it would happen so soon, and so quickly. One year later, here I am as a finalist. It's just so mind-boggling to me. I want to make a difference in the hockey community, but I didn't think it would have this much of an impact on people. It's wild."

Kelsey photo 1

McGuire never played hockey but grew up a Flyers fan in Horsham, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles north of Philadelphia, and counted general manager Daniel Briere among her favorite players.

"My grandma had season tickets to the Flyers and the (Philadelphia) Phantoms (of the American Hockey League), so I grew up watching hockey and being around hockey," McGuire said. "My mom always joked that if I was a boy that she would put me in hockey, so I'm just a big hockey fan. It's just something that me and my grandma bond over and it's one sport that I like, that I'm really into."

Helping others with disabilities also was important. During McGuire's time as a student at Hatboro-Horsham High School she created an inclusion cheerleading team. After graduating from Kutztown University, she began her teaching career in 2018 at Overbook School for the Blind in Philadelphia.

In 2019, McGuire helped chaperone a group of students from the school that visited a Flyers practice and got on the ice with some of the players. Then after restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic were lifted, she was approached by a teacher at Overbook and Doris Donnelly, a volunteer with USA Hockey in its disabled hockey section, about beginning a blind hockey program.

"She asked if this is something you'd be interested in, I know you're a fan of hockey and you're a great teacher, I think this is something that could be really something special for you," McGuire said. "And I was like, how hard could it be like making this team and making this program be successful and have the students have an opportunity? So it's just been really great to be able to promote awareness and grow the game of blind hockey."

McGuire was able to connect with Flyers senior director of community relations and hockey development Rob Baer, who remembered her from her visit with the Overbook students in 2019.

Kelsey photo 2

Baer arranged for McGuire's nascent program to have ice time at Flyers Training Center, the Flyers' practice facility in Voorhees, New Jersey; receive donated equipment for those in need; and had Flyers community staff and alums help at Learn to Play Blind Hockey sessions during the summer of 2022.

There are a few differences between traditional hockey and blind hockey. Blind hockey features a larger puck made of metal with eight ball bearings inside so the players can follow the sound it makes on the ice. The nets are three feet high, one foot shorter than an NHL net.

"It was a really cool and rewarding thing to be to be a part of and to see it start up and kind of gain some momentum," Baer said. "And then Kelsey kind of took off with it. She didn't need us to help run her program. She just needed a little bit of assistance getting it going. She just put so much work into it, there's no stopping her."

Philadelphia Blind Hockey is now based at Hatfield Ice Mini Rink in Colmar, Pennsylvania. High school players from teams taking part in the Flyers Cup are volunteers at weekly Learn to Play Blind Hockey clinics.

That's just one aspect of how McGuire hopes to continue growing it with help from the Flyers.

"I think hockey is just one of those sports that is inclusive," she said. "You have women's hockey. You have all the disabled hockey. Disabled has special hockey, Warriors, sled, amputee and blind hockey, so it's really cool to see that aspect, that blind hockey is starting to like pick up in the U.S. and be successful, especially in Philly."

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