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Sled hockey tourney a turning point

Adia Waldburger, of the Record staff

It looks like the National Ability’s Center (NAC) Great Salt Cup Sled Hockey Tournament is here to stay at least that is what the sled hockey community is hoping.

"I’d like to see it next year, said NAC Golden Eagles team captain, Casey Lenhart. "Our hope is to grow to an eight-team tournament. People love it up here."

The four-team tournament that brought some of the nation’s best sled hockey players and teams, was the first sled hockey tournament and tournament of any kind held at the Park City Ice Arena. In previous years, County Ice in Murray hosted the event, but the move up to Summit County is expected to be permanent. Besides the local team, contingents from New England, Colorado and Sacramento also attended.

According to NAC Outreach Manager Brooke Hafets, with better financial and backing and general support from the NAC and a new ice rink, the infrastructure is better suited to host the event as well as run instructional sled hockey clinics throughout the year.

"We received special grants to help with Paralympic and other wheelchair sports, so people are able to have sleds and helmets," Hafets said.

The Park City Ice Arena is specifically designed to host sled hockey events. On one side of the rink, the tempered glass goes all the way to the floor, so the players on the bench can see the ice from their sleds. The Park City location is also ideal for its Olympic legacy, multiple entertainment options and disabled-friendly atmosphere.

"I think this is a great venue. I’m looking forward to being part of an annual event," Paralympian Dave Conklin said.

The strong competition also added to the tournament. Besides many national level players, Paralympians Jim Finch, Conklin and Taylor Chace were attendance fresh off the ice in Turin, Italy. Conklin, considered the father of sled hockey, brought along his new Sacramento team.

"We’ve got the best competition Utah has ever had and it’s only going to get better," said Golden Eagles head coach Jim Weeks.

The event also offered the opportunity for those new to the sport to get a taste of the fun. Due to word of mouth and media exposure, many "new fans" came to the rink to experience the sport.

"A lot of people heard about the tournament that otherwise wouldn’t have known it existed," Lenhart said.

Weeks agreed.

"We’ve never seen this many people," Weeks said, noting the support of the NAC had made all of the difference.

The crowds were treated to non-stop competition all four days. Friday night, the Golden Eagles and the Colorado Avalanche teams played an action-packed thriller, eventually ending in a 5-5 tie. Rules of the tournament gave Colorado the victory.

"It was the best sled hockey game ever for Utah," Weeks said. "We were close, but we didn’t win."

The NAC team also played the New England Bruins for the first time. A conglomerate of sled hockey teams from the New England sled hockey league, including Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, the super team showed the West Coast teams hockey at its highest level.

Parkite J.C. Weeks, a U.S. Junior National Team player along with Salt Laker Jhon Bryant, both hope to continue improving the quality of the Utah team and are likely candidates to make the Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010.

The sport is played from a sled on two blades, with two sticks used for shooting, passing and balance. Periods are 15-minutes each and the net is standard size. Sled hockey is ideal for people disabled from the waist down, although able-bodied people can, and do participate in the sport. The new ice rink has been hosting a recreational class every Saturday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

Conklin thinks that the popularity and skill level of the sport will only continue to grow in coming years.

"It’s a multitude of things," Conklin said. "The amount of fitness, contact, skill of skating and puck handling and the camaraderie. We’re all sportsmen."

The sport is also great, because it is coed and the disabled/able bodied accessibility aspect allows families to play together.

The hype is already high for teams like the Avalanche and Bruins that have played to big venues. Besides the jersey and brand marketing support, the teams are also able to do demonstrations during the intermissions of their National Hockey League counterparts.

The backing of programs like the NAC, and the ability to practice multiple times a week will also help the sport grow. Conklin expects the Utah team to eventually move into the elite level, much like other teams based around a facility that focuses on disabled sports.

The New England Bruins vice president of development, Craig Gary said that he brought many of his marketing ideas to the Utah tournament to help the Utah and other western teams think in terms of financial success and growth. He said a strategic use of sponsors who want to align themselves with the disabled going beyond American with Disabilities Act requirements and their success is key to the prosperity of wheelchair sports.

"We’re hoping we can create a model of disabled sports in America," Gary said.

He is also hoping to see the western teams, including Utah, Colorado Sacramento, Dallas and Phoenix, form a league, much the same as the New England league. Such an entity would allow for more games and marketing and sponsorship options.

"I actually think there is more growth and development out here," Gary said. "I’m impressed with what’s going on with the Utah team and Colorado. It’s a real testament to bring out a Sacramento team to compete knowing it would be difficult."

Besides the weekend instructional class, the NAC will also host an instructional clinic at the Ogden Ice Sheet on April 29.


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