Tag Archives: J.J. O’Connor
Now who doesn’t want to see The Hornets youth sled hockey players on the ice? Remember J.J. O’Connor who manages this talented, tenacious team? He’s the one who led last year’s U.S. paralympic sled hockey team to GOLD victory in Vancouver. And the Queen Bees? No other words than “precious” and “fearless” will do.
Where: Winnetka Ice Arena, 490 Hibbard Rd., Winnetka, IL
When: Saturday, February 26, 2011, 7:30 pm
Who: Hornets youth sled hockey team versus the Queen Bees (aka The
Wilmette Cougars and The MotherPuckers)
Why: Hockey at its best! Oh, and my favorite—Chuck a Puck! I’m going to
chuck lots of pucks.
Don’t: Miss It!
What happened to J.J. O’Connor is every hockey mom’s nightmare. What he is doing with his life is every hockey mom’s most heartfelt dream come true.
I recently had the privilege to talk with J.J. about his personal journey, accomplishments and the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, the team he helped lead to GOLD medal victory in Vancouver’s Paralympic games last year. I came away feeling humbled, inspired and in total awe.
As chair of U.S.A. Hockey’s disabled section since 2003, J.J. has been integral in the growth of disabled hockey across the country. During his tenure, he has served on U.S.A. Hockey’s board of directors and spearheaded growth in all four disciplines of disabled hockey. He championed the addition of an under-20 team which fueled the development process for U.S.A. Hockey’s sled hockey program.
After breaking his neck while playing hockey at age 16 in 1995, J.J. continued to follow the game and became involved with disabled hockey after graduating from Lake Forest College in 2001. While he attended the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, as a representative of U.S.A. Hockey, J.J. made his first appearance as general manager of the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team in 2010.
S: Where do you live?
JJ: Mt. Prospect, Illinois, where I’ve lived for the past 12 or 13 years. I grew up on the north side of Chicago. Around Rogers Park.
S: Do you mind talking about your injury and how it happened 15 years ago?
JJ: No, it’s part of me and my story. It happened when I was playing for the McFetridge Patriots. I was a Center. We were up against the Skokie Flyers, a team that had recently cut me as someone out of district. I knew most of the players on the other team and there was a lot of emotion tied to the game. It was the first game, first puck of the season. The puck dropped and I went after it along with a defenseman from the Flyers. I went into the boards head first and he went in feet first. That’s when I broke my neck.
S: What was the rehab road like?
JJ: It was tough. The physical adjustments were hard, and so were the mental ones. Everything, I mean everything, changes. It’s an adjustment personally, but also for your family and friends. Not only did I have to relearn how to get through the day, but I had to adjust my hopes and dreams. It was, and still is, a process. I know there are cures being talked about, so I hold out some hope, but I don’t spend my day waiting for a cure. If I did that, I would have wasted the last 15 years of my life.
S: What would you do if there were a cure?
JJ: I would never take an elevator again. Even if it were the tallest building, I would take the stairs. I’d walk everywhere and I would enjoy the outdoors. This question is like asking someone else what they would do if they won a $200 million lottery prize. It’s almost impossible to imagine.
S: What does your job entail for U.S.A. Hockey?
JJ: When I graduated from college, and because of my injury, background as a hockey player and friendship with Jim Smith, I learned that U.S.A. hockey was looking for someone to head up their disabled section. You get voted into this position, and I was selected. It’s been a good fit. My job is to grow disabled hockey across the country. I’m especially proud of the youth program I’ve developed in our Hornets team, which I general manage. Anyone who wants to play sled hockey is welcomed. We’re mostly restricted by the number of pusher volunteers we have for the ice.
I was named general manager of the Paralympic sled hockey team for the Vancouver games last year. My work with the Paralympic team really started in 2006 at the games in Italy when I facilitated a move in governance for Paralympic sled hockey to U.S.A. hockey.
S: What was involved in managing the team to victory in 2010? What were your day-to-day responsibilities?
JJ: Mostly working with a team of people to accomplish our goal. I tried to make sure every player had 2 sleds, since most only had one. Sleds are the most important piece of equipment and they’re expensive, anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. I coordinated the building of new sleds. We received a generous gift from Joey Lugano (NASCAR champ) to cover some of our higher expenses and manpower.
I also oversaw a lot of the behind-the-scenes details. Paperwork. Passports. Travel for players. Tickets for family and friends, of which we had several hundred in attendance. PR, answering questions, and web site specifics.
Traveling to camps and competitions was a big part of my job for Vancouver. Getting around is obviously challenging for me, so it’s time consuming. My good friend, Jim Smith, travels with me.
S: What did it feel like to win an Olympic gold medal?
JJ: Tough to put into words. I was very proud of the players. It takes incredible commitment and it’s a long journey, starting when they are young. The last year before the games is especially difficult. Two months before the games we trained in Buffalo, New York, where there is a higher concentration of sled hockey team players. Those who came from other states (our players are from all over the country) took up residence in Buffalo, giving up their lives—school, work, family—to be there. Local people in Buffalo helped get free ice, but otherwise each player footed their own bill. Our team was the youngest, with an average age of 23. The next youngest team’s average age was 30. Most of our players will probably be on the team that competes in 2014.
There’s a photo of the team as the flag is being raised and our national anthem is being played. Our players are looking at the flag and I’m looking at them because I had such admiration for each of them.
S: How did you celebrate the win?
JJ: It was fantastic. The celebration sticks out as being so memorable. We started in the locker room with a lot of cheers and speeches. U.S.A. Hockey and Paralympics then organized a party at a local restaurant. The team took a bus there and all friends and family were waiting. As the team walked in to the restaurant in single file, there was a standing ovation and an eruption of tremendous cheering.
S: Do you play sled hockey yourself?
JJ: No, to play sled hockey at a high level you need good upper body strength. You can play with a pusher, but I would get frustrated with my pusher and would probably start yelling at him to go faster. I’m fortunate to enjoy my administrator role so much.
S: You mention upper body strength. What is the best form of training to get in shape for this sport?
JJ: Work on your shoulders and truck muscles. Strength, balance, wrist, elbows.
S: What are your personal goals career-wise?
JJ: I’m committed to continuing to develop disabled hockey. I’m also the AHAI webmaster and we just unveiled a new web site. I’m also a public speaker and share my story about overcoming adversity at a number of schools and businesses.
I co-own a franchise of three hair cutting salons called Sport Clips and would like to open more of these. It has always been a dream of mine to own my own business, so this is something I’m passionate about. Sport Clips creates a championship hair cut experience for men and boys in an exciting sports environment.
S: What are your plans regarding the winter games in 2014 in Sochi, Russia? Will you be managing the team again?
JJ: I’ll be in Russia, but I’m not sure if it will be as general manager again.
S: What advice would you give to players considering taking up the sport of sled hockey?
JJ: Do it and have fun. Get out there and try it and understand that you will get better with practice. When I was a kid my perception of success was to be in the NHL. Since then I’ve learned that success boils down to giving it your all. Regardless of anything else—give it your all.
S: Which are your favorite NHL hockey teams and players?
JJ: Blackhawks. I grew up admiring Savard and Roenick. Jonathan Toews is my favorite player now; he’s the whole package.
S: I think Jonathan Toews would say that you are the whole package.
S: Any other sports you love?
JJ: I play power soccer. This is a sport for people in power wheelchairs. We play on a b’ball court with 4 on each team. It’s competitive and a lot of fun. My team is the GLASA Fire. I’m also a big football fan and a diehard Cub fan.
S: Anything else you would like to add?
JJ: You’re personally in control of making sure your good days outnumber your bad days. Make the best of everything. Take the cards you’ve been dealt and play them. You don’t get another chance.
Sled (or sledge, as it is referred to outside the U.S.) hockey has become a fan favorite ever since it was introduced as a medal sport in the 1994 Lillehammer Games. The sport has been played in this country since the late 1980s. Team U.S.A. won its first Paralympic medal in the sport—Gold!—at the Salt Lake Games in 2002.
More info: http://www.usahockey.com/disable_hockey/default.aspx
Just as in ice hockey, sled hockey is played with six players (including a goalie) at a time. Players sit on a specially designed sled that sits on top of two hockey skate blades. There are two sticks for each player instead of one, and the sticks have metal pics on the butt end for players to use to propel themselves forward, while also shooting and passing. Rinks and goals are regulation Olympic-size, and games consist of three 15-minute periods.
Donate as an On-ice Pusher or with Critical Funding
Contact J.J. for the best avenues: DUBLJ95@aol.com
New Sled Grant Program
USA Hockey and the USA Hockey Foundation are offering a new sled grant program to assist new start-up sled programs. The purpose of this grant is to help with the initial costs of getting a new sled program off the ground and to ease some of the initial financial burden by providing five (5) new sleds to a participating program (This Sled Grant Program will be limited to eight (8) new programs this year).
It’s easy to qualify for this program. Applicants must submit a grant application, the new sled program must be in its first year of operation, and a financial statement and/or budget must accompany the application.