Just four teams participated in the first USA Hockey Sled Classic in 2010 in Denver. A year later, there were nine teams. When the sixth annual event begins Thursday, 20 teams will play in four divisions.
More than 250 players from NHL-affiliated teams all across the United States (and one from Canada) will compete for championships in the tournament that will be held at the Florida Panthers’ practice facility, the IceDen, in Coral Springs, Florida.
To U.S. Paralympian Josh Pauls, who’ll be competing with his Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA) St. Louis Blues team, the turnout is a reflection of the dynamic expansion of the sport in recent years.
“It’s just exponential growth,” said Pauls, who certainly would know.
After taking up sled hockey at age 8, Pauls, 22, has been a member of the past two U.S. Paralympic championship teams at Sochi (2014) and Vancouver (2010). He’s also helped the national team to three world championships, including this year’s.
He said the attention the sport has received in the United States and in Europe has led to rapid growth in participation, teams and talent level, which all will be on display at the IceDen over the four days of the Sled Classic.
He points to network television coverage of the Paralympic Games and world championships as a conduit for people to learn about the sport and for disabled athletes to try it.
“Winning has done a lot because we’ve been recognized, but I think media coverage is just getting it out to people that wouldn’t ordinarily think about either playing or being involved in sled hockey,” he said. “It’s really just growing it off the charts.”
One of Pauls’ national teammates, Declan Farmer — who will play for the Florida Panthers in the Sled Classic — agreed that more people are flocking to the sport because of the attention it has received.
“More disabled kids, more recently injured adults, are finding out about sled hockey, and that’s just more players to play the sport,” said Farmer, who is up for Male Paralympic Athlete of the Year as part of Team USA’s Best of the Year awards (voting continues through Nov. 20 at TeamUSA.org/awards).
Farmer, 18, who is in his final year of high school in Tampa, said the influx of new talent is exciting.
“The national team I feel like gets better every year as far as talent goes, and the development team as well,” he said. “Both teams are deeper, tryouts are more competitive. … It keeps on growing, and hopefully there’s no stop to it.”
Certainly a big part of that growth is the sled hockey programs supported by the NHL teams.
Pauls, who grew up in New Jersey, first played for the New York Rangers-affiliated program and then started playing for the Blues when he moved west. Five of the 15 NHL organizations with teams at the Sled Classic will have two teams participating — Buffalo, Chicago, Colorado, Nashville and Pittsburgh — reflecting the high interest and participation in those regions.
Other NHL teams sending sled hockey squads are Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Carolina, Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Ottawa, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
Participating players — including 20 current or former members of the national team — will wear the official jerseys of the NHL teams they represent. All games in the Sled Classic will be streamed live at USAHockey.FASTHockey.com. After round-robin play, championship games in all four divisions will be played Sunday.
Pauls and Farmer both have played in the Sled Classic before, with Farmer having participated since 2011, when the event had just nine teams. Both will go with their teams hoping to win their first championships.
For Farmer, it will be the rare chance “not to have to fly” for a big event, with it being played in his home state. For both national team members it will be a reunion of sorts.
“It’s always great to play friends from around the country,” Farmer said. “Guys on the national team, the development team or players I’ve met at camps and club tournaments over the years.”
The growth of the Paralympic movement also has provided an outlet for disabled military veterans to be active and competitive at a high level. Pauls said they’ve made their impact on sled hockey.
“They’re really pushing the level of play up just because of their work ethic and what they bring to the table as military veterans,” he said. “I mean, they’re unbelievable to play against and pretty awesome to play with, especially on the national team, just because they never give up.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.