Declan Farmer in action at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 11, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Declan Farmer knows how much the sport of sled hockey has changed since he first started playing 13 years ago at the age of 9
He’s seen it in the amount of media exposure surrounding the Paralympic Games. He’s seen it in the talent pool from which national team coaches select players. He’s seen it in the annual USA Hockey Disabled Hockey Festival, which just wrapped up its 15th edition this past weekend in Wesley Chapel, Florida
He also knows how much the continued growth of the sport will benefit athletes from recreational players right up through the elite ranks.
“The growth has been pretty crazy,” said Farmer, 21, who grew up close to Wesley Chapel in Tampa, Florida. “I like to think that part of it has been because of the national team’s success, but I think it’s just really a fun sport to play and people with disabilities who have the opportunity to try it really enjoy it.
Farmer was born a bilateral amputee and was always a competitive kid who loved sports, but on prosthetics it was hard to keep up playing alongside able-bodied children. The family wasn’t big into watching hockey, but they learned about sled hockey as a possible sport to play and Farmer loved it the first time he tried it. His once-a-month games turned into joining teams, including the Tampa Bay Lightning Sled Team, and then when he was 12 years old a couple of things happened that impacted his future dramatically
First, he went to a tournament where members of the 2010 Paralympic gold-medal winning team were playing and he was inspired by what he saw. Then, he got invited to a USA Hockey sled hockey development camp that summer and began to see a future that involved a lot more hockey on much larger stages
Four years later, at the age of 16, Farmer was on the ice in Sochi helping the U.S. win the gold medal. He tied for the team lead in goals (three) and points (five), including two goals and an assist in the semifinal win against Canada, and was named the International Paralympic Committee's Best Male Athlete of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. To top it off, he picked up an ESPY Award for Best Male Athlete with a Disability.
“The best part was just being on the team, getting to represent the USA and making lifelong friendships with the guys,” he said. “Obviously winning gold, as a competitor everyone wants to win, that makes it even better. I don’t necessarily like being in the spotlight, but it was cool to experience. I was more in it because I love playing hockey and being part of a team, and it was great to be part of helping the game get more exposure.
The U.S. sled hockey team picked up its unprecedented third gold medal in a row in PyeongChang in 2018, which turned out to be a record-breaking year for the Paralympic Games in general. A record 567 athletes from 49 delegations participated, the number of accredited media covering the competition was up 15 percent from Sochi four years earlier and 47 broadcast rights holders brought the action to more than 100 countries.
In the U.S., NBC brought more than 250 hours of coverage across its different channels and platforms, including 94 hours on television which nearly doubled how much they broadcasted in Sochi. Toyota was the presenting sponsor.
All that exposure and support helps, Farmer said, and you don’t need to look much past the development of players in the U.S. to see the results of the sport’s growth
“The talent pool is so much deeper,” Farmer said. “When I first got on the team they’d pick the best 17 players talent-wise because there wasn’t that depth that there is now. Today they have so many players to pick from that it’s more a choice based on character, how you fit into the team dynamic, camaraderie, all that kind of stuff. That alone has made going to tryouts every year more and more competitive.
Farmer remembers going to the Disabled Hockey Festival when it first started and said there were maybe two divisions with a few teams in each. This year’s festival featured six divisions — sled hockey adult, sled hockey youth, blind, deaf/hard of hearing, special hockey and standing amputee and warrior — over two weekends.
Farmer played with the Gaylord Wolfpack, which lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the championship game, 6-2. Almost everyone on this year’s national team and about a dozen of the players from the 2018 Paralympic Team played in the tournament, he said.
As is always the case, the significance wasn’t lost on Farmer when he and his national team teammates were asked to take photos with younger players and sign autographs.
“That’s how I got into it,” he said. “I was the kid who was 12 years old asking the 2010 guys for autographs. It feels good to give back in that way and hopefully we’ve done a good enough job on the ice to inspire them, but it’s also important to be a good person off the ice as well because that’s what we really want to teach. We want to set a good example for the kids that will follow us and someday possibly be on the same team as us."