J.J. O'Connor was only 16 years old when the unthinkable happened.
Playing the sport he loves, he became entangled with a member of the opposition and fell head first into the boards. He wasn't able to get up.
O'Connor uses a wheelchair to get around now, but he, just like the athletes he's helping to oversee this weekend in Nashville, are anything but disabled.
The seventh annual USA Hockey Sled Classic, presented by the NHL and hosted by the Nashville Predators at Ford Ice Center, is underway, with games at the facility all weekend long, culminating with championship games on Sunday. A record 24 teams, each affiliated with an NHL club, are competing with over 300 athletes participating.
O'Connor, who is the chairperson of the Disabled Hockey Section of USA Hockey and a co-chair of this weekend's event, has found a way to keep his passion and love for the sport alive.
"We use the term disabled hockey, and in a lot of ways, it's a very incorrect term," O'Connor said. "We do it because it's easily identifiable, people know what you're talking about when you say that, but really, it's the furthest thing from it. Most of these players, they have to overcome a lot of things, but at the end of the day when they get on the ice, they're hockey players and athletes, just like anyone else."
Of the 300 participants at the tournament, 23 of them are current or former members of the U.S. National Sled Hockey team - 13 of whom have skated on U.S. squads that won Gold at the 2010 and 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Jeff Sauer, who was a successful coach at the college hockey level for 40 years, now oversees the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
"I had just retired from the University of Wisconsin, and USA Hockey came to me and asked if I would coach the national team," Sauer said. "I initially said no, but I was on the ice for the guys for about 10 minutes and there was no question I was going to do it."
Sauer has six Purple Heart winners on his team, as well as players who have been disabled from birth. For a man who has won national championships and coached NHL players, there is something about his sled hockey players that is different from any he's ever worked with.
"There's nothing like being a coach and walking in the locker room and seeing the chemistry on the team, and this is as good as a chemistry as I've ever had with any team," Sauer said. "The chemistry is what makes it fun for me, and you get things done on the ice when you have that kind of attitude."
Sauer won't be behind the bench this weekend; instead, he'll be watching some of the members of the national team, as well as those on the U.S. developmental team to get an idea as to who may be the next player to earn a medal for their country.
Sauer has players who come from all over the country, thanks in part to the development of teams in a majority of metropolitan areas over the past number of years, including the Sled Preds in Nashville.
Troy Weise is the Director of the Sled Preds and the co-chair of the tournament. Also the Sports Director for the National Wheelcats - dedicated to providing sport activities for individuals with physical disabilities - Weise was already fond of the sport, and with the help of a grant from the Nashville Predators Foundation five years ago, the Sled Preds were born.
"I was a big hockey fan but didn't know much about playing the sport, so having the Foundation that first couple of years was very instrumental," Weise said. "We did an equipment drive and raised some money in addition to the grant that they gave us, so they were very helpful in getting everything started."
Weise has seen the Sled Preds grow tremendously over the last five years to include three teams - two with adults and one youth team - with approximately 35 people in the program. To have the tournament hosted in Nashville brings it to another level for Weise, and he couldn't be happier to welcome everyone to town.
"I guess we set the bar pretty high with the All-Star Game last year, so I wanted to make sure we lived up to that standard," Weise said. "Having a bunch of other teams coming in, I wanted to make sure we put on a good show for the players and the fans coming in and make sure they're treated well."
The man who is tasked with selecting the host cities year after year for the tournament, O'Connor says Nashville is making quite an impression on the sled hockey community.
"I'm super excited to be here in Nashville," O'Connor said. "We've seen what Troy has done with the Sled Preds, and the support the Predators have given, and Nashville is a great city to visit, so it was an easy choice to have this classic come here. And I have to tell you, so far, they are above and beyond organized, more than most cities that we've ever had any sort of tournament in."
USA Hockey President Jim Smith was also in town to take in the action, a branch of the sport he's seen grow tremendously in recent years in cities all over the country.
"They're equivalent to any other athlete in any other sport, so people don't treat them any differently," Smith said. "Once they get on the ice, they're as competitive as anybody else. A lot of people think all the disabled may have a physical or cognitive disability, but once they get on the ice, in this sport in particular, there's something unique about hockey compared to all other sports… Everybody's a family."
No matter the circumstances, whether they've fought for their country in foreign lands or simply come from small-town America, they've all hit the ice because they love the game. And while the competitive nature undoubtedly comes out when the puck is dropped, there's something more important in these games, in this branch of the sport, than just winning and losing.
"The game has really been very good to me; it's given a lot to me, so it's my way of giving back to the game and staying involved with the game that I love," O'Connor said. "Although I don't play, I live vicariously through these players and through the smiles and the enjoyment of everybody that's involved. It's everything to me."
All games during the Seventh Annual USA Hockey Sled Classic are held at Ford Ice Center and are free of charge to the public. For a full schedule, statistics and tournament results, click here.
For more information on the Sled Preds, visit their website here. Or to learn more about USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Programs, click here.