PLYMOUTH -- Immediately through the doors of the Plymouth Ice Center, a sparkling silver trophy gleamed. The O'Connor Courage Trophy, dubbed by many in the disabled hockey community as the "Stanley Cup of Sled Hockey," sat front and center in the arena's lobby. Players and fans in town for the eighth annual USA Hockey Sled Classic couldn't miss the award if they tried.
Not that they'd try.
Shining under the fluorescent lighting so integral to hockey arenas, the trophy awaited its first-ever recipients. Commissioned by the NHL before this year's Classic, it was named after sled hockey pioneer and chair of the disabled hockey branch of USA Hockey, J.J. O'Connor, who was in Plymouth himself to take in the tournament.
"It's just weird to have a trophy with your name on it," said O'Connor, who as a 16-year-old fell head-first into the boards and broke his neck in three places during a hockey game in Chicago. "But it's a testament of what it means to be a volunteer and to give back to the game that loves you, because that game has done so much for me. It's a thank-you to those that have done things for me, and I'm honored to have something like that."
A record 28 sled hockey teams, representing 20 NHL affiliates, took over the Minneapolis suburb from Thursday through Sunday to battle for 'The O'Connor.' The Wild, who hosted the tournament, sanctioned two teams. Several other organizations, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres and Nashville Predators, brought split squads to Plymouth. For some teams, like the Detroit Red Wings, it was their first time at the tournament.
"We see more NHL teams every year," O'Connor said. "When you have teams like the Minnesota Wild [hosting], other teams are like 'well that's what they're doing, we gotta do that too.'
"All the NHL teams want to one-up the other teams and that's good for us, because that helps grow the sport," O'Connor added with a laugh.
"The very first sled hockey event had four teams. That's it," Disabled Director of Minnesota Hockey Toni Gillen said. "This is the largest event, and so that really talks about not only how the growth of sled hockey is occurring across the country but how the NHL and the different communities are embracing their programs."
Teams were seeded from Tier I through Tier V and would play out the weekend within those brackets. The Wild's A team played in the evenly-matched Tier III, while the B team dominated Tier V.
Gillen said the event has been in the works since December of 2016. As soon as the idea of having the tournament in Minnesota was pitched, teams, leagues and external organizations were all about it. What better option was there than the State of Hockey?
"[USA Hockey] knew that we know hockey," Gillen said. "It was just kind of a no-brainer. It was time for it to be here."
The support of the Minnesotan community surrounding the tournament have made the ordeal of executing such a monumental event significantly easier.
"It's been the easiest thing I think I've ever done in relation to hockey," Gillen said. "Because our team growth here has been so positive, they've just rallied around it."
"The biggest thing we could ask for an event like this is having the support of the local community," said Jeremy Kennedy, general manager of the U.S. Development Sled Hockey Team and USA Hockey's manager of membership and disabled hockey. "There are tons of volunteers here from all over the community helping us out … it's been great."
With Plymouth's three ice sheets and sprawling ice complex, complete with a lounge area, cafe, and wheelchair-accessible facilities, it was an ideal location. Friends and family could cheer on the athletes from the comfort of overhead observatories or from the stands.
But while it was, at its heart, a competition, off-ice interactions showed just how closely knit the sled hockey community is. Players in Detroit Red Wings jerseys crammed into the elevator with friends repping the Edmonton Oilers; supporters in Arizona Coyotes gear chirped Colorado Avalanche fans; athletes in Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks sweaters chatted like long-lost friends rather than Central Division rivals.
Many participants are teammates on the U.S. National Sled Team or the U.S. Development Sled Team, with bonds of friendship that bridge their NHL affiliations.
"Someday, our dream is to have every NHL team represented," Gillen said.
As the game continues to grow and the tournament nears that goal, it becomes an even greater melting pot for triumphant stories of players overcoming adversity to live out their dreams. No one is a greater example of that than O'Connor himself.
"I always wanted to a part of the NHL, when I was a young kid. But I broke my neck playing hockey," O'Connor said. "I had dreams of playing in the NHL and being in the Hall of Fame and of the Stanley Cup.
"I think this is better."
Tier I Champion: Chicago Blackhawks
Tier I Runner-up: Colorado Avalanche
Tier II Champion: Pittsburgh Penguins
Tier II Runner-up: Columbus Blue Jackets
Tier III Champion: Edmonton Oilers
Tier III Runner-up: Minnesota Wild
Tier IV Champion: Colorado Avalanche
Tier IV Runner-up: Carolina Hurricanes
Tier V Champion: Chicago Blackhawks
Tier V Runner-up: Minnesota Wild