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Paralympians Happy To Inspire The Next Generation Of Disabled Athlete

04/12/2014, 5:00pm MDT
By Harry Thompson - Editor, USA Hockey Magazine

Josh Sweeney, 2014 U.S. Paralympian, talks about being a role model to young disabled athletes

MARLBOROUGH, Mass. – It’s approaching 10 p.m., and the line that snakes through the upper lobby at the New England Sports Center shows no signs of shrinking. Nobody is leaving without getting what they came for.

It isn’t the Boston Bruins alumni, who had just played a charity game against an all-star team of amputee players, that everybody is waiting for. To the kids participating at the 2014 USA Hockey Disabled Festival the prize for their patience is much bigger than that.

Every disabled player and family member will leave here with more than just an autographed team photo of the 2014 U.S. Sled Hockey Team. They will carry with them a memory that will serve as a source of inspiration moving forward.

“These kids look up to these guys like they’re [Alex] Ovechkin or [Sidney] Crosby. They’re their heroes, and they give them a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to shoot for,” says J.J. O’Connor, the chairman of USA Hockey’s Disabled Section, who considers the presence of these Paralympians the crowning jewel of this weekend celebration of disabled hockey.

The 13 Paralympians who came here with their gold medals in tow are happy to oblige. For many of them, they have been on the other side of the autograph table, and giving up a few hours of their time and a little writer’s cramp is a small price to pay it forward.

“I think it’s great because I get to give back to the sport that has given me so much,” says Rico Roman, who is here competing for the San Antonio Rampage.

“These guys really look up to us as National Team players and Paralympians, so for me to sign some autographs and take a few pictures hopefully will inspire them to be the best that they can be. I really get fired up from seeing the youth players and the smiles on their faces. I love it.”

As O’Connor is proud to point out, these festivals are more than just another hockey tournament or a showcase of skills. It’s a chance for every player, whether they are competing in a sled, a special hockey game or as a member of an amputee team to say loud and proud that they too are hockey players just like their able-bodied brethren.

And what these Paralympians represent is the possibility that there are opportunities to be a part of something bigger if they continue to work hard and believe in themselves.

“It’s like pulling on that USA jersey,” says Kip St. Germaine, a three-time Paralympian who is coaching the UNH Wildcats adult team.

“It’s an honor and a responsibility that you can’t take lightly. It’s one thing to make the Paralympic Team and win the gold medal, but there are other responsibilities that come outside of the ice … to get kids enthused and involved because they’re the future.”

To their credit, every member of the gold-medal team understands that and relishes the opportunity to serve as an example for the next generation of disabled athlete.

“It’s awesome to be that kind of role model for these kids,” says Josh Sweeney, who scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game against Russia.

“That’s why I try to do the best I can to let them know that it’s possible for them, and it’s not something that they can’t do if they get to work.”

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According to NHL metrics, the average hockey shift lasts somewhere between 45 and 55 seconds. There’s inherent beauty and fluidity to line changes, as skaters come on and off the ice, looking to recharge after going full throttle for their teams.

Meanwhile, your NHL officiating peers are giving their all, too – regularly logging 4-5 miles a game. Those totals are even greater at your level, where you and your colleagues officiate multiple games a day, several times per week, on a seemingly never-ending calendar.

And, although we want to perform our best every game, everyone has both good days and bad – players and officials alike. To learn more about keeping burnout at bay, we went to the experts: longtime amateur hockey scheduler Larry Carrington and former NHL official Mark Faucette.

“There is so much more to officiating than meets the eye,” said Faucette, a 17-year NHL veteran. “It may look easy from the stands, but to maintain total control of a game along with the stress, slumps, supervisors, travel, and fitness regimen takes a very special kind of person.”

Get in shape (and stay there)
We all think we’re in “pretty good” shape, but the reality is, officials must be top athletes and in great condition – even at the youngest levels.

“Conditioning is very important—the deeper into the season, the more important it is,” Carrington said. “Burnout happens physically, mentally, and emotionally. An official who is in good condition will experience less physical burnout, and that will in turn help with the emotional and mental burnout.”

Faucette stresses following a workout routine that maxes yourself at least every other day. Neither player or official should plan to use games as a vehicle toward better physical fitness.

“Where we used to go to camp to get into shape, officials today are on summer conditioning regimens and are tested as soon as they come to camp,” he said. “Taking care of your body is a total focus for the good official.

“The players are so much stronger and faster now, so it’s imperative the officials keep the same pace.”

Find balance
No, not balance on your skates (that’s a given). Rather, make sure to keep the big picture in mind, to work a manageable schedule that includes everything that’s important to you – family, friends, and time away from the rink.

Although it makes Carrington’s job as an assignor more difficult, he said it pays off in the long run.

“I encourage officials to take at least one weekend off to get away from hockey,” he said. “I certainly don't want to lose their services for a week, but the invigoration that it usually provides makes them a much more valuable asset over the course of the season.”

That’s huge in an industry where both mental and physical fatigue are commonplace.

“Every official runs into slumps, just as players do,” Faucette said. “You spend numerous hours alone as an official, and when things are not going good, where everything is negative, it can cause you duress.

“Positive thoughts and self-evaluations speed up recovery,” he continued. “So, instead of telling yourself, ‘I wonder what bad thing will happen tonight?’ say ‘I’m ready for anything – bring it on!’”

Have fun
It’s No. 3 here, but should be No. 1 on your to-do list.

“I realize the officials are all trying hard, and mistakes are part of any sport by any participant,” said Faucette, who currently serves as supervisor of officials for USA Hockey, the NAHL director of player safety and the SPHL director of officiating. “That being said, the joy I get out of seeing a young official start out at ground level and making the big time one day is immeasurable.”

For most of you reading this, the “big time” might not be the end goal (and that’s OK). But wherever you are, there’s experience you’ve gained, as well as that to come – which both point back to why you first got involved in this great sport.

As an assignor, Carrington tries to get out of the office as much as he can and intentionally varies the schedules of his officials to help keep things fresh. He also encourages his more senior officials to lend a hand to those who aren’t as long in the tooth.

“Going to the rink and helping officials help themselves get better can be very invigorating,” he said. “Even a very good, very experienced official will often find it fun and relaxing to mentor some new official at a lower-level game where the stress levels aren’t nearly as high.”

But no matter where you officiate, Carrington emphasizes keeping one thing in mind: the love of the sport and those playing it today.

“If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be out there.”

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