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Wounded Warriors Sled Hockey

St. Lawrence Plaindealer - 2/28/2017

Tournament This Weekend At SUNY Canton

Teams from around New York and Ontario will gather in Canton the first weekend of March to compete in an adapted version of the most popular sport in the area. The fifth annual Fort Drum Mountain Warrior sled hockey tournament will be held at SUNY Canton's Roo's House Friday through Sunday.

The Mountain Warriors Sled Hockey team was started in 2011 by Canton native Mark McKenna, who works as a civil engineer at Fort Drum. Mr. McKenna was working out in the gym one day when he noticed a man in a wheelchair struggling to use the gym equipment. He soon found out there was no organized sport for the disabled at Fort Drum, and wanted to help.

Mr. McKenna used his commute from Canton to Watertown to think about how he could help disabled veterans work out, be competitive and have fun. A lifelong hockey player, coach and fan, Mr. McKenna decided sled hockey was the way to go, and began making calls to gather equipment and funding to support the sport for disabled soldiers.

Mr. McKenna said he received equipment donations from local colleges and found sponsors in Watertown and Canton to help pay for sleds. He reached out to the Warriors in Transition Unit and found 24 soldiers who were interested in participating in a clinic to learn about the sport.

"That was great," Mr. McKenna said of the clinic. "And then I thought, 'hey, why don't I start a team?'"

Since its inception, the Mountain Warriors team has grown and now travels to games and tournaments throughout the northeast. The team's home tournament in Canton has grown to include six teams this year. Squads from Ottawa, Kingston and Durham, Ont. will cross the border to meet up with the Mountain Warriors as well as teams from Syracuse and Buffalo.

Mr. McKenna said the Mountain Warriors are made up almost exclusively of soldiers, but that every team in the tournament has military members on their rosters.

"Mostly, the guys we are playing have a disability of some kind whether it is mental or physical. Some of the guys' injuries are invisible," he said. "It is just another way to play sports."

"It is an athletic event as well as a bonding thing. Where else can you go get competitive, smash people into the boards and then come out shaking hands, eating food and drinking beer afterward?" he continued.

The sport has not only allowed players to keep active, but also helps them feel like they are part of something significant and has even been a saving grace to some. Mr. McKenna said he has heard from players that being involved with sled hockey has made their life worth living.

"If I can save one life doing this then I think we are doing a tremendous job. The gratifying thing is when you get out there and get a good workout and have fun and just see the smiles on the faces. That makes it worthwhile. That is what keeps you going," Mr. McKenna said.

Mr. McKenna said Canton area businesses have helped turn the tournament into something every team looks forward to competing in.

"The other teams say we have the best tournament going because of the outpouring from the community," he said.

Businesses like Kunoco, Sergi's, Josie's and Donaldson Funeral Home are all contributing to help make the tournament a success. Their help, coupled with support from the VFW, Knights of Columbus and Hospice makes the competition memorable, according to Mr. McKenna.

The tournament would not be possible without a generous donation from SUNY Canton as well.

"SUNY Canton has been unbelievable to us. They have donated ice to us all year for practice and donated ice for the three days for our tournament," Mr. McKenna said. "I could not do this anywhere but Canton and the north country area because of the outpouring of support for not only hockey, but also for the soldiers and the disabled."

Above all, Mr. McKenna said the tournament is all about bringing people together for a common goal: to have fun.

"Just to see the smiles and the friendships we have made with the others teams is great," he said. "We just have a riot. We have gotten to be really good friends with all of the teams."

The tournament begins at 7 a.m. Friday and teams will be playing until 6:30 p.m. A similar schedule is slated for Saturday and the final round will take place on Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon.

The Knights of Columbus in Canton is sponsoring a dinner for the teams on Friday night. The dinner will feature motivational speaker and amputee athlete Dave Stevens who was born without legs and has been playing sports all his life. Even before adaptive sports were created, Stevens was a three-season athlete at his high school in Arizona competing in able-bodied sports and eventually went on to become the vice president at ESPN studios. (visit davesimpossibledream.com)

Throughout the tournament, fans can enter to win multiple prizes during a silent auction. Past items have includes a signed jersey, equipment and other sports memorabilia. There will also be a raffle for a Yeti Tundra cooler ($350 value), a 50/50 raffle and a Chuck A Puck contest.

 
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