JJ O'Connor, co-chair of the US Sled Classic along with Nashville organizer Troy Weis, took a moment to chat with SB Nation about the upcoming 7th annual tournament in Nashville. What makes O’Connor most excited about the tournament? "I love watching Tier V teams," he said. "That's where you get your younger players. But no matter what, it's all about competing and having fun."
A partial quadriplegic who cannot compete in the sport, O’Connor has dedicated volunteer time toward organizing, GMing, and chairing events related to USA Hockey’s sled division. He was the GM of the 2010 US Paralympic sled team, and a coordinator for the 2014 team.
The tournament, which begins on Thursday, November 17, will see 24 NHL-affiliated teams come to Nashville to play in five different tiers of competition. The tournament is a round-robin format, with semifinals on Saturday November 20, and finals on Sunday, November 21.
Sorting the teams into tiers is a careful business. Much like other adaptive sports, there is a "roster ranking form" that helps assess the relative skill of each player. "We don't use that so much," O'Connor said. "We base tier rankings on past performance, grouping teams by what they did last season. We also take into account whether the team wants to 'play up' to harder competition or focus on winning a few. It's a guestimate, at the end of the day."
This focus on creating an atmosphere that emphasizes fair competition and fun is one of the hallmarks of sled hockey. The teams are made up of everyone with upper body mobility who wants to play, regardless of age or gender. "Karen Smith is the netminder for Boston," O'Connor said. "She's 65 years old, playing on a Tier III team. And one of the best players in the entire league is female, Kelsey DiClaudio." DiClaudio, who was the first woman named to the US Men's national development team, will play for the Pittsburgh Penguins (Tier II) affiliate in the Sled Classic.
Another player to watch is Colorado’s Ricco Roman, a national development team player who just moved to Colorado from Texas.
O'Connor is excited to see whether anyone can push Colorado's Tier I team off its pedestal. "They won the tournament last year, and they're still a strong team," he said. "I also want to see how the home team, Nashville, does. They're competing in Tier III, and it's a strong division."
The Tampa Bay Lightning affiliate sled hockey team will compete in Tier V. Declan Farmer, a US National Team competitor, will not be joining the team for the Sled Classic this year due to attending college.
Each year, USA Hockey partners with a local NHL team to host the US Sled Classic. This year, the local organizer is Weis, a volunteer. "Every part of the tournament is staffed by volunteers," O'Connor said. "We're based all over the US, and fly in for the tournament.”
They do it for love of the sport.
The games will be streamed live at USAHockey.HockeyTV.com. The complete schedule is at the USA Hockey website, here.