LA Kings Sled Hockey Team picks up their first championship & continues to change lives

For those of you who have read my work for the LA Kings for the past four seasons, but do not know my background, I am paralyzed from the chest down. I sustained a devastating injury at the age of 16 in a high school hockey game back in Minnesota that left me with a broken neck at the C5 & C6 vertebrae. As a result of the broken neck, I also severed my spinal cord completely, resulting in quadriplegia from the upper chest down. This story is not about me, but it is one that hits close to home for many reasons.

Whether you’re born with a disability or you sustain an injury in life that results in a permanent disability, there are battles that you have to overcome, battles the rest of society doesn’t even think about. The way society flows, having a disability often, if not always, complicates everything in your life. Without full physical function, life with a disability can often result to one living life on the sidelines and just watching. But not here, not for this group of outstanding disabled athletes you’re about to learn about.

This story starts over 14 years ago when two parents of a disabled son, due to Spina Bifida, took matters into their own hands.

It was just another night for Christie Jenkins, her husband Todd and one of their two sons, Nick, who was approaching his teenage years at the time. Nick, who was born with Spina Bifida at L3 level, along with hydrocephalus, was looking into the possibility of playing sports but hadn’t found anything of interest until his mother had showed him a video of a family friend in Wisconsin, of someone with the same disability playing sled hockey. Instantly, Nick knew it was the sport for him.

The only problem was that Southern California had no sled hockey teams or programs. As any parents would do for their children, Christie and Todd looked everywhere for a solution but came up with nothing until Christie emailed USA Hockey about the lack of sled hockey in Southern California and ironically, they were looking for someone to start a program. Having had no experience in coaching or in hockey, Christie gave it a shot.

“We thought well, okay, if [USA Hockey] will help us, we’ll give it a shot. It took a couple of false starts and it was not easy,” she explained. “We had a couple of clinics and we eventually we got the right rink, the right coach. We got some funding from a few different sources and we were able to start the program.”

As Christie, Todd and others continued to build the sled hockey program in Southern California, the LA Kings joined forces in support, helping to stabilize and back the program.

Another vital piece to the functioning of the LA Kings Sled Hockey team, who got involved at the same time, was parent of team member, Joshua Swope, Kathy.

Joshua, like Nick, was born with Spina Bifida and joined the team in its early stages. Kathy, always supporting the team, was asked to take on the role of team manager. Helping the team grow and responsible for everything off of the ice, Kathy is in charge of team travel, equipment and certification to name a few.

As another parent stepped up, the Kings Sled Hockey program grew.

Fast forward to present day and the roster is up to 23 players including both traveling and non-traveling participants. Giving opportunity to disabled people of all ages around Southern California, participants range from their teens to their 60’s, including 16-year-old superstar Angel Guzman.

Angel, also both with Spina Bifida, was given the chance to try out sled hockey thanks to the team created in Southern California. Because of it, he has blossomed into a young athlete with an extremely bright future.

Initially needing convincing by his father Jose to even try the sport, once Angel attended his first practice, he wanted to play and his dad couldn’t get him off the ice. Fast forward seven years, and at the age of 12, Angel took part in his first ever travel tournament. It was there that Angel fell in love with the game and realized the bright future he had in the sport.

“Having a team here locally gave me the opportunity to play a sport I love,” he said. “It allowed me to be able to play a sport even though I’m in a wheelchair. Because of that, I’ve been able to chase my goal of making the Paralympic team.”

With sights set on an individual goal of making the Paralympic team, Angel an invitation to the 2023 USA Hockey National Sled Hockey Development Camp in New Jersey. One step closer towards his goal.

Angel and his teammates put in the hard work during their weekly practices in Riverside and it all paid off earlier this season, when they attended the NHL’s Sled Hockey Classic this past November in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Competing in the tier-six tournament, the LA Kings Sled Hockey team took home their first championship with defeats over opponents from the likes of Edmonton, Carolina and Nashville. Over a decade of hard work on and off the ice finally came to fruition. All of the hard work that the players put into their games, the previous tournaments, all the travel and dedication paid off.

“It was a really amazing experience,” Christie, who is also the coach, explained. “We have a few athletes that have been there pretty much since the beginning. As a team, we’ve had some pretty lean times. There was even a time right before COVID hit when I had to get in a sled because we didn’t have enough athletes to build a team for scrimmages. To be able to work with this team and has been so rewarding. All of the time they’ve spent at practice and a lot of the skills that they’ve developed in those practices, to see them go out and use those in the games and then to win, it was amazing.”

The victory was truly an example of persistence paying off.

In the championship game versus Edmonton, the Kings found themselves tied in the third period, leaving things until late before scoring the game-winning goal with just a minute and three seconds remaining.

“Seeing their persistence finally pay off, we’ve tried so hard and we’ve participated so many times and the guys have never given up,” Kathy added. “In sled hockey, you have a large age gap and ability gap, so it’s not like you’re in regular hockey, where you’re having tryouts and the teams are picked. We have everybody that would play, that wants to play. So, to finally make it and win one of them was amazing, we finally did it. I’m so proud of them.”

Rewarding for all involved.

Angel, who scored the team’s first goal during the championship game, also spoke positively about the experience.

“It was a really nice experience because of all the time that I’ve been playing and getting to have fun doing it with this team that I’ve been with for a really long time. It was a great way to win, a great experience for all my teammates and my coaches.”

While winning is the ultimate goal for many, it isn’t for everyone partaking in sled hockey. It’s not always championship or bust.

For others, just getting out of their wheelchairs and experiencing the freedom of being on the ice or being able to play a team sport while spending time with your teammates is already a huge victory in itself. There truly is no downside.

As Kathy, mother of Joshua, spoke about her son – “Josh loves sled hockey. He doesn’t care if they win, lose or crash. Just having the opportunity to get on the ice and participate with other people and play a sport he loves means so much.”

Playing sled hockey is a win for all parties. As a mother, Kathy gets to see one of her sons go out and have fun. All parents can relate to the value of that.

“It’s nice to be able to see him get that opportunity. There are so many sports out there, opportunities for kids of abled bodies, but there’s not a lot of sports opportunities for kids with disabilities. Being able to provide this opportunity for everyone on the team and to see the joy on their faces is why we do it.”

For any athlete, the rink, the court, the field, or whatever surface your sport takes place on, it provides a chance to escape. Whether you’re able bodied or not, it’s an escape where everything going on in your life is forgotten while playing.

As Angel perhaps put it best, when he’s flying on the ice, he doesn’t feel like he has a disability at all.

“My overall favorite part of the game is the physicality and the speed of the game. Just being out there, I feel like I don’t have a disability.”

While the three sled hockey members I mentioned in the story all had Spina Bifida, players with all kinds of disabilities fill the Kings’ roster. No disability is turned away from trying out sled hockey as other member’s disabilities of the roster consist of amputations.

For anyone who might be interested in trying out sled hockey in the Southern California area or has their reservations to try it out, Kathy put it best.

“Just come try it out and see if it’s for you. I mean, my son Joshua always tells people, you’re only going to fall that far, you’re only inches off the ice. The only thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to fall over, so it’s not like it’s scary or dangerous. We supply all the equipment. See if it’s something that you would enjoy. The ability to fly over the ice is amazing. When you see somebody do it the first time, even if they fall a lot, they’re still like, ‘that was amazing!’ They get off the ice, and are always was like, ‘Oh, my God, that was so much fun!’”

If you or someone you know is interested in trying out sled hockey, please contact team manager Kathy Swope or visit LA Kings Sled Hockey and fill out the information required.

The LA Kings Sled Hockey team practices weekly at 7:45 on Thursday’s in Riverside.

The Kings will be hosting the LA Kings Sled Hockey team on March 3rd when they take on the New Jersey Devils at Arena. The team will be honored during the game for their championship this past November at the NHL Sled Hockey Classic.

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