The teams playing in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals this week – the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning – have strong ties to Para ice hockey.
The Stars have a local nonprofit called the Sled Stars, which has been providing local athletes with the opportunity to participate in Para ice hockey in Dallas since 1995. The programme has produced five Paralympic champions, including three-time Paralympic medallist Taylor Lipsett, who retired after the Sochi 2014 Games. In 2012, Lipsett helped the Stars win the USA Hockey Sled Classic Division A Championship, a tournament presented by the NHL.
The Tampa Bay Lightning Sled Hockey Team, founded in 1996, is where US star forward Declan Farmer got his start. He began playing on the local squad in 2007, shortly after he tried out a sledge for the first time at one of their clinics in Clearwater, Florida. Farmer has since gone on to become a two-time Paralympic and two-time world champion and one of the world’s greatest player.
Both teams have participated regularly in the USA Hockey Sled Classic, which is an annual round-robin format tournament between NHL-affiliated teams that takes place each year. Participating teams have an official affiliation with an NHL members club. This year, the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but looks to return next season in San Diego, California.
NHL teams have promoted Para ice hockey in other ways in recent years across the US as well. In 2019, the NHL, together with the Colorado Avalanche, USA Hockey and Athletica Sports Systems, unveiled a revolutionary on-ice sledge bench prototype to accommodate players of all levels. Partners believe this could one day revolutionise the sport in terms in safety and accessibility during game play.
“It has the potential to revolutionise the way the game is played in rinks across the world and provide a more inclusive experience for players that is also economically feasible for community rinks,” US team captain Josh Pauls said last year. “Growing the game is the most important goal in our sport today and these new benches allow us to spread the game to more places and people."
It is not just the US who has strengthen its Para ice hockey ties to NHL players and teams; more recently, the Czech Republic has showcased its ties as well. At the 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, legendary NHL and Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek served as an ambassador for the tournament, promoting ticket sales and interacting with the athletes on the ice.
Then just last week, the Czech Para ice hockey team invited NHL legend Jaromir Jagr to participate in their press conference announcing their new national team sponsor, Kaufland. While he was there, he had the opportunity to try out a sledge and skate with some of the athletes.
“I try to support not only professional players in hockey, but especially children, and it is absolutely amazing that Para ice hockey players also have the support now,” Jagr said. “We saw it at the championships in Ostrava, how incredibly interesting this sport was. It attracted thousands of people to the hall, who enjoyed it and it's great that the boys can do it fully, devote themselves to it and play sports to the fullest.”