The members of the Mighty Penguins Sled Hockey Organization are some of the most courageous people around.
And on Monday, they conquered a unique challenge – the freezing temperatures – in order to play an exhibition game on the outdoor Winter Classic Community Rink at Stage AE as part of the National Hockey League's Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
“This was awesome. As cold as it was, for them to actually be on this ice, it’s just perfect,” said Angie McCoy, whose son Daniel, 16, scored a hat trick in the contest.
“You look at these kids, and a lot of times off the ice, they struggle. But they never complain. You put them up to a challenge and you will not get any more courageous people than these guys. It doesn’t matter what, they will do whatever. It’s just so awesome for them to be able to experience something like this.”
Daniel agreed, saying, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with hockey so far.”
That’s saying a lot for a talented player like Daniel, who was selected to be on the 2010 US Men’s National Team.
The Mighty Penguins organization, which was formed in 1998 by Shriners Hospital in Erie, Pa., is made of up three different teams – a novice squad that is strictly therapeutic; a junior team that’s emerging into competition; and an adult team that competes in tournaments throughout the United States and Canada.
Players like Daniel are on the adult squad in a competitive sport that’s internationally recognized. Sled hockey is a key Paralympic event and is growing bigger every day.
Players glide around on the ice using sleds fitted with skates. They use shortened hockey sticks with picks on the end to move along the ice and control the puck.
“It’s a great disabled sport,” said Ray Harding, one of the adult team coaches. “When my son was born, you think as a disabled child, what are you going to do. Then you’ve got a sport like sled hockey that is full contact, full speed, that is something great for them to look forward to every week and participate in.”
Monday’s game, which got underway at 1:30 p.m. under a mixture of snow flurries and sunshine, ended up being an exhibition, inter-squad match between the adult and junior teams. The Washington Capitals’ Wounded Warriors squad was originally scheduled to play, but couldn’t make it.
“I liked the snow blowing in my face, it was pretty cool,” said Kelsey DiClaudio, 13, who’s been playing sled hockey for five years after she heard about the team through word of mouth. “It was a great experience, I’ve never played outside before.”
“She was thrilled. She couldn’t wait,” Kelsey’s mother Karian said. “It’s Winter Classic ice, playing outside. She was thrilled, she couldn’t be happier and have the opportunity to play with the Penguins.”
The Mighty Penguins have been involved with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization since April. They were thrilled to get the opportunity to partake in the Penguins’ week-long celebration of hockey leading up to Saturday’s 2011 Bridgestone NHL Classic.
“It’s just fantastic that (the Penguins) went to the trouble of putting this rink up and then allowed some of the amateur organizations to play,” said Daniel’s father Mark, who also helps coach the team. “Not to mention all these kids and young adults with disabilities. Looking over the city skyline and watching that, it’s just wonderful.”
“It’s just something that when we started this organization 10 years ago, Angie and myself, we never would have dreamed or imagined that we would be at this point,” Harding said. “Playing outside with the Winter Classic happening later this week, it was a really neat ordeal for the guys to come down and be part of everything that’s going on.”