Angie McCoy – Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins – (June 30, 2011):
First, can you tell readers how the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins got started and how it’s funded?
The Mighty Penguins were formed by volunteers from Shriners Hospital in Erie in May 1998.
Initially, the goal was to provide children and young adults with physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in a competitive sport. At first, the practices were therapeutic for players, but the parents and guardians saw firsthand the physical and emotional benefits.
Over the next 10 years, the parents managed the organization with support from Shriners Hospital in Erie. The parents have taken the program from a therapeutic focus to a combination of therapy and competition. That is, for players who want to compete at a national level, the Mighty Penguins provide the training ground to develop the necessary skills. In fact, we currently have on our adult team one gold medalist from the 2002 Paralympics, one current USA National player, and two current USA Development players.
In addition to support from Shriners Hospital, the only direct funding, prior to this year, for the Mighty Penguins was donations received via an annual fundraiser where our players challenged stand-up hockey teams to a sled game. That is, the stand-up teams get on sleds and play the game the way individuals with disabilities play the game. In fact, our catch phrase is ‘Get ready to play….Our way!’ Although the main purpose of the fundraisers is to raise the much needed funds that allow individuals with disabilities the opportunity to participate in a team sport at minimal cost to families, the fundraisers also raise awareness that individuals with disabilities can compete at a high level.
Most able-bodied individuals who take to the ice on a sled are surprised at the workout they get as well as the skill required to play sled hockey. Many local organizations have helped our program grow by donating ice time, equipment, customized hockey gear, and insurance.
Bladerunners Ice Complex has been a huge supporter for us as have the Amateur Penguins and International Hockey College. Individuals throughout the area volunteer their time and talents to educate and assist the players. We have several volunteers from UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and UPMC Medical School as well as from local high school and amateur teams.
With direction from UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, we decided to branch off as an official 501C3 Tax-Exempt organization this year. In April, we challenged UPMC Rehab Institute physicians and staff to a sled hockey game. UPMC Rehab Institute has proven to be a great partner in our mission to provide individuals with physical and/cognitive disabilities, regardless of age, the opportunity to play a team sport with minimal financial impact to families.
Another great partnership has been with the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. They have supported our adult team in national competition. Sled hockey is an expensive sport. Players not only require the equipment used by all standup ice hockey players (except for a stick and skates) but they also require a custom sled and two mini hockey sticks with picks. Sleds can cost from $500-$1000 each.
Sticks range from $65-$200/pair. In addition to equipment costs, each player is required to have insurance through USA Hockey ($35/year). We reserve three hours of ice each week for players to practice or play games.
Practice and game ice can cost between $150-$250/hr. The opportunity for players to travel and compete in tournaments throughout the US and Canada is priceless but costly. Registration fees and travel expenses can cost an individual family $500-$1500 per event. As I said earlier, the Mighty Penguins have worked hard to minimize the expenses to players who want to participate either therapeutically or competitively in the sport of sled hockey. As a tax-exempt organization, we can now accept donations directly online at www.penguinssledhockey.org. 100% of all donations are used to provide individuals with a disability the opportunity to be a part of a team.
Besides the obvious differences, how does the Sled hockey game differ from that of ice hockey?
Players have the same equipment as stand-up players but instead of skates they sit in a sled and instead of one stick they have two mini-sticks that are fitted with ice picks on the end. The sticks are used by the player to propel himself/herself on the ice. The game of sled hockey is played pretty much the same as stand-up hockey.
All the rules of stand-up hockey apply in sled hockey with the addition of a couple of extra penalties including picking (where the pick end of the stick is used to stab another player) and t-boning (where the front-end of a sled is forced into the side of a player’s sled).
The game is just as physical as stand-up hockey and fights do break out. Just google ‘sled hockey fight’ and see for yourself!
How do you spread the message of the team’s existence and how do you recruit players?
Over the last ten years, the players and families have spread the word about the team’s existence.
Whenever a player had an appointment at Children’s Hospital or at the Children’s Institute, families would bring along printed material about the program. We have also been known to walk up to strangers in a mall or on the street who have an obvious disability and ask them if they are interested in trying out the sport. It’s amazing how many family and friends have spread the word about our program. It’s the ‘six degrees of separation’ idea. Someone will come to a practice who heard about us from the friend of a friend of a player’s family member.
As our players become more successful in the sport and the media has reported on their successes, we’ve received a lot of inquiries about participating in our program. Through the NHL’s ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ campaign, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been instrumental in getting the word out that individuals with disabilities can participate in hockey.
The Penguins are championing our successes via their website and Facebook page whenever possible. More recently, having a partnership with UPMC Rehabilitation Institute has spotlighted our existence for individuals who have rehabbed through their program. This provides individuals who are newly injured with a competitive sport that they may or may not have played prior to their injury.
What is the criteria needed to be able to play and how do you select your final roster?
We roster three teams each year with USA Hockey.
Our novice team is for individuals with physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Most players, regardless of age, start out on our novice team. The average age of this team is around 8 years old. We have players as young as 5 and as old as 22 on this team. Our junior team is for individuals who have mastered the basic tenets of hockey and are emerging into the next level of competitive play.
These players are for the most part independent both on and off the ice and are ready for a competitive level of game play. That is, players participate in practices consistently, understand the rules, are developing their stick handling skills, are skating with stamina and purpose, and are willing to travel for competition.
Our adult team is for individuals who are independent on and off the ice (necessary for traveling), have further developed the skills beyond junior-level competition and have reached a level of ability that allows them to safely participate in aggressive adult-level competition at a national/international level.
Our coaches work closely to determine which players are placed on their teams. We want players to succeed at the level in which they are most comfortable playing. Each team has the opportunity to participate in scrimmages and tournaments throughout the season.
How are players coached on the game and on how to use the sled? How do you get them acclimated to the game?
Players are coached in a game as any stand-up player would be coached. There are positions to be played and plays to be executed. The coaches direct the players on and off the ice on how the player can improve and how the overall team can improve.
Using the sled is another story. Coaches really can’t teach this. For a non-disabled person, getting acclimated to the sled is difficult. Players really learn how to use the sled by watching other players and getting direction from the more experience players. Because everyone’s disability is unique, each player develops their own technique for using the sled. Some use arm strength to primarily propel themselves while others use their core as their primary strength. The only way to really get acclimated to the use of the sled is practice. Balance is a key part to being on a sled. Players start out with the sled blades spread about 8 inches apart. As balance becomes second nature, the blades are moved in. Some of our advanced players have their blades at a ½ inch apart to allow for quicker turns.
Who does the team play – and where can fans see them in action?
Our adult team participates in the Mid-American Great Lakes Sled League (MAGL Sled League).
In addition to our team, teams include Ohio Combined, Fort Wayne’s Turnstone Flyers, Grand Rapids Sled Wings, and the Michigan Sled Dogs. Last year was the league’s inaugural season. The Penguins took first place in the league (see stats at http://www.usahockey.com/Season/TournamentStandingTab.aspx?EventID=2632&AgeDivisionID=19)
and were invited to the National Disabled Championship in Blaine MN in April to play for the Adult National Title. The team came in second place nationally losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the championship game. See stats here: http://www.usahockey.com/Tournament/TournamentScheduleUser.aspx?EventID=2650&AgeDivisionID=1902.
The adult team also participates in the NHL Sled Hockey Classic that is an annual event sponsored by the NHL and USA Hockey. Last year’s event was in Denver, CO. This year it will be in Philadelphia in November. The Junior and Novice team scrimmage with the Johnstown Sitting Bulls as well as teams from Ohio. They participate annually in the Shriners sponsored Aladdin Invitational held in January in Columbus, OH.
In addition, they have the opportunity to participate in the Bob Chase Frostbite Tournament held in Fort Wayne, IN in February as well as the Jennifer Kryger Tournament held in Grand Rapids, MI in March. Both teams have the opportunity to participate in the open division of the National Disabled Festival held in April each year. This year it will be in Dallas, TX. Fans can see the teams in action during the MAGL league weekend to be held in Pittsburgh on November 11-13 at Bladerunners in Harmarville.
In addition, fans should check our website often because throughout the year teams come into Pittsburgh to challenge us. Ontario’s development team came into town to play two games against us in May. We smoked them.
The USA Women’s team will be challenging our adult team in December here in Pittsburgh. The teams are also available to play against stand-up teams anytime/anywhere. We provide the sleds and sticks for the stand-up teams while they provide the ice. It is a great opportunity to show different communities throughout Pittsburgh that individuals with disabilities can compete in team sports.
Where/how do you think you can you improve in terms of the program and are there plans to do so?
We are currently in a tremendous growth period for our program. Having just secured a 501C3 status opens up so many more opportunities to grow the program as more grants/funds are available to us now. Until recently, all three teams practiced on the ice at the same time to minimize the expense of the ice. As funds are received, we are able to separate ice times by teams allowing each team the opportunity to develop their game using a full sheet of ice.
With more ice available, more players can participate. The opportunity to grow financially allows us to purchase more equipment for our players. Our program has about 15 extra sleds and sticks for use by new players who do not want to purchase a sled and for use during fundraisers. We provide used helmet, gloves, chest pad, elbow pad and shin guards. The more equipment on hand, the more players we can
outfit for participation in the sport.
Does the Penguins organization get involved in the program – if so, how?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been instrumental in getting the word out that we exist.
Through the ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ program, we are part of their youth hockey initiative. They keep track of our National players and post their accomplishments on the website and Facebook page. They provided us the opportunity to skate on the outdoor rink during the Winter Classic this past winter. What an amazing experience! Through the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, we were able to secure funding that allowed us to participate in the NHL Sled Classic last fall and hopefully this fall as well. Without their support, we would not have had the financial ability to travel to Denver to participate in the NHL Sled Classic.
The Penguins have been highly touted for their involvement in community affairs and the growth of hockey in the region. It appears to a major initiative of the organization – not just “something else they do”. How is this fostered through the organization and why is this so important to the Penguins?
We have had the pleasure of working Rich Hixon, the Executive Director of Strategic Planning, when he first assumed this position about a year ago.
Rich and Max Malone, the Manager of Amateur Hockey Development, were instrumental in allowing us to participate in the NHL Sled Classic. Along with Dave Soltesz, the President of the Pittsburgh Foundation, they whole-heartedly support our effort to develop the Mighty Penguins organization.
They truly believe that hockey should be available for anyone regardless of ability. In fact, Max Malone believes in us so much that he agreed to be a member of the Mighty Penguins’ board!
Who are the Penguins players that get involved most – how do they do so and any fun anecdotes from their involvement?
We have not had any Penguins players get involved to date although we look forward to their participation. It would be awesome to challenge the Penguins to a sled game in the near future!
What have been the most rewarding – and frustrating – elements of your program so far?
Any time new players show up at a practice, it is priceless to see them realize that they are able to participate in a sport that is so similar to the actual non-disabled game. Most of our players are in wheelchairs or walk with leg braces. The expressions on the players’ faces when they realize the
freedom they have skating on the ice is so awesome.
Especially for families with a child with a disability, our program provides not only a social outlet for their child but also support for them. We have all had the ups and downs with medical issues involving our children.
We have all had the ups and downs of school and social issues. Sled hockey gives families the respite they need as well as the support from others who really understand what they are going through. It is extremely rewarding to see the face of a player, young or old, after they compete in their first game or score their first goal. There is nothing better than the feeling of accomplishment!
The frustrating elements of our program are few. Probably the only real frustration is managing the finances at times to ensure that everyone has the ability to participate in any event, near or far, with minimal impact on families.
How has the success for the Penguins made things easier – and harder – for you and your programs?
The success of the Penguins has made things easier for our program. The success has impacted youth hockey in our area and hopefully will continue to do so. The impact on youth hockey only highlights that hockey can also be played by people with disabilities.
The success of the Penguins has afforded them the ability to initiate the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation whose mission is to support community programs that improve the lives of youth in our area. Without the foundation, we would not be able to participate in certain events because of the costs Involved.
Any last thoughts for readers?
Sled hockey has been a blessing for so many players and families in our area. If you know of anyone with a disability who wants to be a part of something special, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit our website at www.penguinssledhockey.org. Get Ready to Play….…..Our Way!!