Imagine if Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, and Viktor Arvidsson hosted a 3 on 3 hockey tournament in Nashville. Fans would rush to Bridgestone Arena to watch Alex Ovechkin, Nathan MacKinnon, Alexis Lafreniere, and Andrei Vasilevskiy compete against the hometown talent.
A remarkably similar event played out on the 13th and 14th, as many of the top sled hockey players in the country descended on The Lab in Franklin to compete in a 3 on 3 small-arena tournament. Players from as far away as Colorado, New York, Boston, and St. Louis arrived in town to hone their small-space skills. This weekend was a “Who’s Who” of top talent in sled hockey, with players from the U.S. National Mens Sled Hockey and US National Development Teams testing each other on the ice.
The player interaction at The Lab wasn’t much different than what fans see at an NHL All-Star weekend—cutting up, catching up, colorful banter—all happening in a space nearly buzzing with an undercurrent of competitive drive. The misconception that sled hockey is a gentler and kinder version of traditional hockey is easily dismissed the minute the players take the ice. These athletes came to compete—and to win.
U.S. National Team forward Josh Hargis explained it this way, “There are so many people dying to get to this level, but for me I’m so competitive. I hate losing. There are people who love winning, and there are people who hate losing. I hate losing.”
Like the rest of the players competing this weekend, Hargis’s commitment is consuming. His typical training week consists of three off-ice physical workout days, and four days of on-ice skill training. After playing for two other programs in the country, Hargis and his family moved to Nashville to train in a highly respected sled hockey environment. Nashville has gained a reputation for developing top talent.
The growth of elite talent in Nashville really took off with a core group of players—including John Curtin, Ben Maenza, and Joe Woodke along with coach Keith Grooms—that has quickly grown into a hub for players competing at the highest level. Nashville’s sled hockey organization had more players make the National Team than any other U.S. club last season.
Hargis is not the only player who relocated to Middle Tennessee to train. Nashville’s sled hockey community recently welcomed two U.S. players generally considered the best in the world, Brody Roybal and Declan Farmer. Roybal and Farmer moved in with Travis Dodson, a member of the 2018 gold-medal-winning U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team. Dodson splits his time between Chicago and Nashville for sled hockey. While these players live and train in Tennessee, several still compete for other sled hockey teams to spread out the top talent and keep league play competitive.
With a strong core of athletes and new players moving to the area, it isn’t surprising that Nashville has developed a reputation for sled hockey excellence. What is surprising is how few in Nashville know about it. The talent is here. Now it’s time for the sports community to embrace the growing sport.
There are a few challenges to getting the word out though. One is the false assumption that adaptive sports like sled hockey are better suited for inspiration than competition. In reality, elite-level sled hockey is far more heart-pounding than heartwarming. While sled hockey originated as an adaptation of traditional stand-up hockey, it is in no way a watered-down, slower, safer version of the sport.
U.S. National Team Captain Josh Pauls laughed at this attitude. “I’ve never known anyone to watch a high-level game and walk away saying, ‘Oh, that was nice’. It’s bumper cars at 25 miles an hour with big checks against boards that don’t give.”
That speed and physicality was evident that weekend at The Lab.
Introducing sled hockey to a larger sports community confronts that misconception and can quickly grow an enthusiastic fan base. When Ostrava, Czech Republic hosted the 2019 World Para Ice Hockey Championships, 64,748 packed the arena to cheer for teams from all over the world. With some of the best players in the sport here, Nashville could also develop an exciting following with more local tournaments like this past weekend.
Of course, tournaments are a logistical and financial challenge. Local ice arenas have hosted sled hockey tournaments before, but Middle Tennessee is still waiting for a fully accessible sled hockey rink. An accessible rink would include an iced bench space flush with the rink, two doors for each bench area, and the boards at the benches replaced with plexiglass so players can see the game. While an individual game can be modified without these accommodations, Nashville likely wouldn’t be able to host large international sled competitions despite its respected reputation.
Host teams cover the ice rental costs for weekends like this, and travel for tournaments is a significant expense as well. Getting these players together not only elevates the league’s play, but also sharpens the U.S. National Team skills for the 2021 World Para Ice Hockey Championships in May. Coach Keith Grooms is hoping that growing awareness of the sport in Middle Tennessee will lead to additional sponsorship support for Nashville’s program.
The city has created a thriving sled hockey program. While the 3 on 3 tournament at The Lab was a success, Roybal, Farmer, Hargis, and the rest of the Nashville players are ready for the opportunity to showcase their championship level play on a larger scale in the Nashville sports community.