If it wasn't for sled hockey, Brian Buchkovich firmly believes that his son Ethan might not be here today.
Ethan, who is 19 years old, started playing sled hockey for the Johnstown Sitting Bulls when he was 8 years old, and his passion and love for the sport was evident right away. He is an extremely gifted athlete, and it got to the point where the coaches and Board of Directors felt Ethan would be best served playing with more advanced players, so he made the Mighty Penguins senior team.
Ethan was playing well alongside Paralympic gold medalists, including Pittsburgh native Dan McCoy, when adversity struck. Ethan, who has spina bifida, was sidelined after undergoing two major surgeries back-to-back and went through a dark period in his life as a result. He became extremely depressed and withdrawn, and gained a lot of weight.
"The thing that kept him going through all of that was sled hockey," Brian said. "He was looking forward to playing sled hockey - tournaments, practice, whatever it was. Just to get on his sled and just to get out on the ice, it helped him through."
Ethan has gotten through that dark period and has since recommitted himself to living his life. He has become more active, lost 50 pounds and is regaining his confidence.
"Within the last year, to see him recovering now and getting his confidence back, it's amazing," Brian said.
After seeing first-hand the struggles Ethan has gone through the past couple of years, the toll they took on him and how hard he has fought to overcome them, Brian decided to write a letter to the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He told them Ethan's story and recommended him for a grant through their "Heroes of Sport" program.
"His dad basically said in the note that if it wasn't for sled hockey, I don't know if Ethan would still be with us," said Bob Babbitt, co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. "It made us realize the power of sport and how important this is. He also mentioned that Ethan had never had his own hockey sled after playing for so long, so we were like, 'We've got to make this happen.'"
So the Challenged Athletes Foundation surprised Ethan with a brand-new hockey sled before Pittsburgh's game against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena as part of the team's "Hockey is for Everyone" night.
McCoy was on hand for the surprise, along with Penguins senior VP of sales and broadcasting Terry Kalna, who presented Ethan with a jersey signed by his two favorite players - Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist.
"I was shocked. It's still setting in," Ethan said. "We came down here and I saw Dan sitting down here, and I was like, what's going on (laughs). And then everything else happened. This was amazing. Sled hockey is my life. For the past 11 years, most decisions I make on and off the ice are, 'How is this going to benefit me playing sled hockey?' It keeps me active, it gives me the chance to meet people like Dan, make great friends through the sport. It's just the greatest thing in the world."
Ethan and his family couldn't have been more proud to be a part of the Penguins' "Hockey is for Everyone" celebration, which included a number of various initiatives that can be found here. Babbitt hopes that people hearing Ethan's story will truly take the theme of the night to heart.
"One of the main things we want people to know is Ethan is an athlete," Babbitt said. "He's an amazing athlete. Without that piece of equipment, he can't be an athlete. Where we look at sports as something that's maybe just recreational, a lot of times it's really important to somebody's self-esteem. And for the Penguins to recognize that and showcase it here in this amazing arena, it's really, really special and it changes people's lives."