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Monday, May 28, 2012

So You Want to Start a Sled Hockey Team?

This is me putting the sleds together way back at our very first sled hockey clinic.  If I had only known then what I know now...

A couple of years ago, my son Nick saw some pictures a friend had sent me.  The pictures depicted her son playing sled hockey.  She lives in Wisconsin and we, of course, live in Southern California.  My son got very excited and begged, "Mom!  Can I play that?  It looks like so much fun!"  My son has faced his share of adversity of life, and I did want him to have a sport, so I told him I would do what I could. 

I started by calling the closest ice rink.  "Do you have sled hockey?  No?  Do you know of any rinks in the area that have sled hockey?  No?  OK, I'll keep trying."

I called the next rink, and the next.  The script was the same.  Finally, e-mailed USA Hockey.  "Where, in Southern California, is there a sled hockey program?"  There response was, "There are no programs in Southern California.  Would you like to start one?"

That was the start of it all for us.  I wasn't totally sure I was the right person for the job.  I'm still not sure, to tell you the truth.  I have a lot of strikes against me.  First, I knew very little about hockey--sled or otherwise--at the time.  I have learned a lot over the past couple of years, but I recognize that I am still no expert.  Second, I had no idea how to organize a sports program.  Third, I don't even ice skate.

I had some things going for me, though.  First, I really wanted to see this happen.  My son has been frustrated about finding an appropriate sport in our area.  Wheelchair basketball is fun, but the local team doesn't take kids.  Other team sports are geared toward developmentally disabled kids.  There is nothing wrong with programs for developmentally disabled kids; in fact, they need even more sports opportunities than are currently offered.  Still, kids whose disabilities are primarily developmental have very different needs and adaptations in sports programs than kids whose disabilities are primarily physical.  Since I really wanted sled hockey to happen here, because I really wanted my son to have a sport, I would count that as an advantage.

Second, though I didn't have a lot of ties to the hockey community, I had some experience in organizing, developing, and creating things.  For instance, when I was frustrated with our church's Vacation Bible School, my husband and I created an entire VBS curriculum, including music, and organized the program and volunteers.  In fact, we did that twice in two different years.  In addition, my husband and I had written two musicals, and directed one of the two.  To be honest, our venture in directing the musical had mixed results, but the important thing is that we did it, and we learned a lot from the experience.  Also, my husband had coached my younger son's soccer team, and in a different season I had been a team mom for my younger son's soccer team.

Third, my husband was on board with helping.  I knew that at certain times of the year he would need to spearhead most everything, depending on how busy I would be.  We work as a team, and it helps to have each other to bounce ideas off of and pick up the slack when someone cannot finish the job.

Also, though I had not been very involved in hockey per se, I had experience with sports.  I had played soccer as a young girl, and had been on the swimming team through high school. My dad was a high school football and track coach.  I learned a lot about athletics and managing a team from him.  He and my mom live fairly close, and I still talk to him about some of the things happening with the program and ask for advice.  One of my favorite moments was when I was speaking with an athlete from a sled hockey team in another state.  The athlete was discussing how the team had some players from the US National Sled Hockey Team as its members.  I mentioned that it's pretty awesome to have such great talent on the team, but it's also a difficulty in some ways.  Why?  The coach feels pressure to always play the very best members of the team in order to help the team win, but if the other players who aren't National Team caliber get very little ice time, then they will never develop as athletes, and the team will flounder in the future.  It has to be a balancing act.  The sled hockey player said, "You know, you're right."  I was so proud of my dad at that moment, because that idea is something I learned from him.  

Our team has gone from nothing to a full-fledged program with fifteen athletes.  We're trying to continue to recruit for both a kids and an adults team. 

So, you want to start a sled hockey team?  It's going to be a very wild ride, and it's going to take dedication and perhaps craziness like you've never experienced.  You have to consider the following things:

1. Do you have the time?  Some weeks and months, we spend a lot of time on sled hockey.  Other weeks and months, we don't need to spend as much time.  This job can take twenty or more hours in some weeks, and it's a volunteer position.  You have to be honest with yourself.  If you honestly don't think you have the time to put out for this, you can find a partner or committee, and you can also get the ball rolling and then hand it off when the time is right.  There are options, but you still need to figure out if you have the time in the first place.

2. Do you care enough?  Some weeks, you will be sitting on top of the world.  You'll have every sled full, you'll have donations and grants, you'll have athletes happy with the program, all the stars will align with the planets, and there will be harmony.  Then, there are the other times.  You will feel used.  You will feel like you aren't valued.  You will feel like you are the only person in the whole organization who has this vision.  If you don't care enough, those times will burn you out.  In fact, even if you do care enough, those weeks might still burn you out.  If you sense the frustration in my voice as I write this, you are right.  This week has been one of those weeks where the bottom has dropped out, and there have been moments where both my husband and I have thought about throwing in the towel.  What has kept us on?  We really, really want this to happen.  We really, really want this program to move forward.  We really, really want not just our son, but the other athletes we have grown to love, to have a sled hockey team.  If you are the type of person who will let adversity come between you and your dream, you are not the person for the job.

3. Are you willing to be uncomfortable?  In the past year, my husband and I have done several things that we do not necessarily consider enjoyable.  We have spoken in front of local service clubs at their meetings (such as the Optimists, the Eagles, Kiwanis, etc.).  We have approached complete strangers with flyers and business cards.  We have filled out grant applications.  We have sat in on coaches meetings and board meetings (and I am not a "meeting person.")  We have driven hundreds of miles in the name of sled hockey, often with duffel bags of elbow pads on our laps.  We have made some unpopular and uncomfortable decisions regarding volunteers.  We have loaded our van in such a way that any Jenga champion would be in awe.  We have spoken with reporters.  Plus, we have been praised. Sometimes praise makes me uncomfortable, too.

So if you have the time, you care enough, and you are willing to put yourself "out there" in uncomfortable situations, you might just have what it takes to start a program.  If you are still interested, here is where you should start.

This is sometimes how starting a sled hockey program will make you feel.  You'll have tons of responsibility, and way too much work.  You'll have to be crazy to take this on...but then again, maybe you're just crazy enough to pull it off!

 A. Start with USA Hockey.  

They have some good resources for sled hockey.  They have a sled lending program where you can get twelve and sometimes twenty-four sleds sent to your local rink for a weekend so you can generate interest and get a list of people who would be willing to join a team.  The sled lending program is popular, so you might have to be flexible with the dates, and you might need to get them for your second or third choice of dates.  In addition, USA Hockey has regional and local directors who have helped get other teams started.  They have lots of wisdom and ideas.  Our regional director helped us get 501c3 (tax exempt) status by giving us good ideas and advice.

The loaner sleds USA Hockey sends out for sled hockey clinics.

B. Find a local rink that has supportive and helpful people.  

We had a couple of false starts with this.  It took us two false starts, and finally on our third rink, we have found a good match.  The hockey director at our rink is great, and we have to give him a lot of credit for the success of our program.  He has a lot of valuable experience, and he has helped us to manage the cost of ice time versus the amount of money our program actually has.  Finding a rink that will be helpful and not hinder your program is important.  (Some of the missteps we have encountered with the other rinks have included not having open lines of communication between you and your rink manager/hockey director, etc, and finding a rink that has restrooms that aren't accessible.)
Our coach and hockey director pose with my son.

C. Find other successful sled hockey organizers, managers, administrators, and coaches. 

I cannot tell you how many brains I have picked in order to get this program off the ground.  Countless.  There are many successful sled hockey programs around the United States these days. Honestly, you don't have time to make all the mistakes there are to make, so it's important to learn from the mistakes other people have made.  From most of the people I have encountered, the sled hockey community is extremely nice and helpful.  You can find out great ideas for raising money.  You can find great ideas for team building activities and things that will raise your team's profile in the community.  (I brushed the raising profile advice off in the beginning, and I have only recently come to understand how important it is.  The more people who know that we're here, the more athletes, volunteers, and financial support we get.  It's as simple as that.)

Dave Nicholls, from Utah's Golden Eagles has been an extremely great help to us, as have the people from Colorado's sled hockey programs, Sacramento's, an able-bodied hockey director in Boston, and many others.

D. Get used to begging for money fundraising.  

Basic team sleds cost $600-$700, and a pair of basic sticks costs $45, plus shipping.  If you want a team, you will need thousands of dollars of equipment.  Different teams do things differently, but many teams have some equipment such as helmets and basic pads for new athletes to borrow so they can try the sport out.  Depending on the details of the agreement you have with your rink, ice time costs a lot of money.  In some cases, it's upwards of $300-$350 an hour (it is in California, where we are).  Once your team gets good enough, you will have travel expenses, repairs, "office costs" such as printing flyers and postage, and many other things that cost money.  I cannot think of a single sled hockey program that is not constantly going from fundraiser to fundraiser, looking at grant opportunities, and seeking sponsorships.  It was an uncomfortable thing for me to do, but I have gotten more used to it.

Look what we got!  Equipment for our team! 

So, you still want to start a sled hockey team?  If you are still reading, you might just be motivated and crazy enough to do this.  Good luck! 

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