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An NHL franchise’s most popular mandate is to win the Stanley Cup, but its impact on the community extends far beyond on-ice performance. Teams have a tremendous opportunity to change lives and, with the help of Travis Leigh, the Tampa Bay Lightning have done just that.
Inspired by his hometown Lightning as a teenager, Leigh wanted to take up the sport of hockey, but cerebral palsy hindered his attempts at skating. Ultimately he decided to stay involved in the sport in other ways and when he learned about sled hockey — where players use specialized sleds to move around the ice instead of skates — he joined a team in Sacramento, where he was going to University.
After two years with the California-based club, Leigh — a broadcasting major — approached the Lightning about a possible internship in 2006. While there, he pitched the idea of putting a sled hockey team in Tampa Bay.
“[Lightning Director of Fan Development] David Cole came up to talk to me and was very positive about it,” Leigh said. “It surprised me because I was so used to people saying no.”
From there, Tampa Bay became the first NHL franchise to sponsor a sled hockey club.
The program has since grown and other teams have followed in the Lightning’s footsteps. The United States has established itself as a leader in the sport with its success at the 2010 Winter Paralympics Games, taking home the gold medal without allowing a goal.
USA Hockey has since established the Hockey Sled Classic, a tournament between NHL affiliated teams. For the first tournament, a total of 46 players participated on teams affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.
A year later, the Philadelphia Flyers hosted over 100 of the nation’s top sled hockey players for the second annual event.
Thanks to the NHL’s involvement, sled hockey teams have been able to take the game outside. Angie McCoy got to see her 16-year-old son, Daniel, score a hat trick in a sled hockey game as part of the lead up to the 2011 Winter Classic. Sled hockey is also on the agenda for events surrounding the upcoming 2013 Winter Classic in Detroit.
From Leigh’s first meeting with the Lightning to what it is today, sled hockey has flourished in the United States. And given how far the sport has come over these few short years, we could one day look back and see this as the beginning of something even greater.