Pioneer Spirit

Sled hockey pioneers such as Dave Conklin and Manny Guerra have blazed a trail for a new generation of talented athletes.Sled hockey pioneers such as Dave Conklin and Manny Guerra have blazed a trail for a new generation of talented athletes.

In his Team USA jersey and USA Hockey ball cap, Dave Conklin looked like any other local fan who came to the HarborCenter in Buffalo to cheer on the home team at the 2015 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship.

Even here in the center of the sled hockey universe, few knew that this quiet, unassuming man is one of the true legends of the game. A three-time Paralympian, Conklin was part of a small group of pioneers who took sled hockey from a recreational activity played at rehabilitation centers around Chicago and the Northeast and turned it into the prime-time sport that it is today.

This year’s World Champion-ship was a prime example of that as games were broadcast around the world, including on NBC Sports Network. To think how far things have come since one of Conklin’s teammates had to mortgage his house and adjoining property to help the team pay for its trip to Nagano, Japan for the first Paralympic competition in 1998 is amazing.

“Every time I come back to watch the fellas play it’s a flood of memories,” the 60-year-old Lacrosse, Wis., native said with a touch of pride. “First, I’m envious that I wasn’t that young when I started. I was 34 when I started, and I played for 15 years.”

“Sled hockey was such a big part of our lives for so long, it’s nice to give back,”

Of course, things didn’t get off to a flying start. The U.S. Team finished sixth out of six teams at both the 1998 Paralympics and the 2000 World Championships. And when the Paralympics came to Salt Lake City in 2002, the team wasn’t expected to do much better.

But under the direction of former NHL star player Rick Middleton, the U.S. squad that featured 10 first-time Paralympians shocked the more established players from Norway with a dramatic 4-3 shootout victory to win gold.

That victory, along with the relentless promotion of the sport that followed, helped grow the game and gave disabled athletes everywhere a new group of role models to look up to.

Conklin has a gold and bronze medal to show for those 15 years as a player. But equally important, he is proud of what he’s done since a recurring shoulder injury forced him to eventually hang up his competitive sled.

He continues to serve as an ambassador for the sport by working with the Wounded Warriors and Disabled Sports USA, helping expose the sport to the next generation of sled stars.

“Sled hockey was such a big part of our lives for so long, it’s nice to give back,” he said.

And while Conklin played with some great teammates in their own right, including Sylvester Flis, Manny Guerra and Joe Howard, he is amazed at the skill and the speed that today’s players possess.

“I’m so excited to see them and to see the skills that these kids have,” he said. “It’s amazing the accuracy of their passes and the speed with which they can skate. These kids are so explosive and their agility is just incredible. They can turn on a dime and head the other way full speed. I’m in awe of how good they are.”

Bringing the event to Buffalo gave Conklin an opportunity to reconnect with former teammates and lifelong friends, like Kip St. Germaine, who is now coaching the U.S. Developmental Sled Team, and Rich DeGlopper, who was a driving force behind the program in the early days.

Having seen how far the sport has come in such a relatively short amount of time, there’s no end in sight as far as Conklin is concerned. And sitting among the legion of flag-waving sled hockey fans that came to support the U.S. team as well as the other disabled athletes, he was content to sit back and take in the action, knowing that in a meaningful way he has helped bring the sport to where it is today.

Issue: 
2015-06

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?: