LaRod Stephens-Howling had never played sled hockey before Sunday afternoon.
Turns out, the veteran NFL running back wasn’t all that bad at the new sport, netting a pair of assists for his Celebrities and Educators team at Planet Ice in Richland Township.
Then again, Sunday wasn’t about Stephens-Howling (or even the final score) as much as it was about his on-ice opposition: The Johnstown Sitting Bulls – a sled hockey team for disabled youth.
“I’m honored to be here,” Stephens-Howling said. “Just to see these kids not putting limitations on themselves and doing what they love to do is definitely an exciting event for me.”
The Sitting Bulls picked up a 9-2 win in their fourth-annual fundraiser game at Planet Ice.
While Stephens-Howling made his name on the football field, this wasn’t his first time on the ice.
“My mother made my brother and I go to a camp one time when we were younger,” Stephens-Howling said. “I think it was the Bruce Coles camp at the War Memorial. That didn’t go too well for me.”
The event also featured an appearance by U.S. Paralympian Dan McCoy, who won a gold medal with the U.S. Men’s Sled Hockey team in Sochi, Russia earlier this month.
When competing stateside, McCoy – a Cheswick resident – plays for the Mighty Penguins sled hockey team in Pittsburgh.
While McCoy has played and succeeded at the highest level internationally, he definitely sees the potential for members of the Sitting Bulls to trade their maroon and black threads for Team USA’s red, white and blue.
“It’s a great feeling to see the next generation of players come up,” McCoy said. “I guarantee that we’ll see a lot of these guys wearing USA jerseys in no time.”
McCoy, who was sporting his gold medal from Sochi, is still coming down from the emotional high of the triumph.
“It was a great feeling,” McCoy said. “I’d been working at it for a long time. To finally see my dream realized is a special feeling and to have all my family and friends supporting me through the journey, it was a good time.”
Fundraising events like this are vital for the team, which presents opportunities for disabled players at no cost to them or their families.
“If the parents are worried about the cost of it, it’s free,” Sitting Bulls business manager Russ White said “Everything we raise goes toward our organization, the parents don’t have anything to pay.
“We’re trying to make so that they come up here and have a blast.”
McCoy notes that the region’s love of hockey can help the sledded version of the sport grow if people are aware of it.
“People obviously are huge Penguins fans around here,” McCoy said. “Just to have sled hockey as a part of the community, that helps to raise awareness for the Paralympics and sled hockey itself.”
The players are aided with the help of specially designed sleds and two shortened sticks with picks on one end to help propel themselves along the ice. Players may also be pushed by a coach or assistant if they cannot propel themselves.
Sunday’s turnout saw scant availability in the rink’s bleacher section when McCoy dropped the ceremonial first puck between the Sitting Bulls’ Lorenzo Favor and Stephens-Howling.
“This is one of the best turnouts we’ve had in the last three years,” White said.
Having outside star power willing to lend their time to the Sitting Bulls’ cause encourages White that the teams upward trend won’t stop anytime soon.
“We have a relative of LaRod’s that we went to two months ago,” White noted. “She approached him and he said that if he wasn’t doing anything through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization, that he’d be willing to help us out. Danny McCoy was a plus after going to Sochi and winning a gold medal. He lives in Pittsburgh and we helped them out with their fundraisers and we asked if he could come today for us and he said ‘No problem.’ He helped us out a lot.”
The team, which hosts a tournament at Planet Ice before traveling across the region to play in weekend tournaments throughout the season, is gearing up for the 10th Annual USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Marlborough, Mass. next month. The Sitting Bulls boast second-place finishes in the Columbus Day Challenge and the Ohio Blades Aladdin Tournament this season.
“I am very excited,” Sitting Bulls player Ethan Buchkovich said of the upcoming tournament.
Shawn Curtis is the sports editor of The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/shawncurtis430.