J.J. O’Connor was 16 years old when his life was changed forever, but thanks to a prestigious hockey tournament, he still remains close to the game he loves.
The Mount Prospect native is quadriplegic, meaning that he can’t play the game of hockey, but at the annual USA Disabled hockey Festival, held over the weekend in the western suburbs, he was able to share his love of the game with others in a special way.
“I’m living vicariously through these players,” he said. “The joy and the smiles they experience, I feel them inside.”
O’Connor played a significant role in bringing the tournament to the western suburbs. The tournament featured 80 sled hockey teams from three countries, and the players proved the only requirement to play hockey is passion.
“These players are showing they’re not different than any able-bodied, typical hockey players,” he said. “They have the same drive, passion, attitude, and competitiveness as anybody else.”
Few people represent that better than Rico Roman, a Purple Heart recipient who had his left leg amputated above his knee as a result of his vehicle striking an IED while driving south of Baghdad in 2007.
After the accident, Roman missed the brotherhood he had found in the army, but he soon rediscovered it on the ice.
“It gave me that again,” he said. “That was instantly taken from me when I was injured overseas, and I got that all back through hockey.”
Roman is a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, and he has served as an inspiration to countless sled hockey players that participated in the event.
“At school, they’re all asking us questions of ‘what do you want to do when you grow up,’ and I was like, ‘I want to be a USA Sled Hockey player and work for that team,’” student Xavier Virola said.
Roman says that he feels free from life’s stresses when he’s on the ice, and that’s exactly what O’Connor hopes that every single player feels on the rink.
“My goal is to have as many players enjoying the game of hockey that I love,” he said. “Regardless of where you come from or what your disability is, we want you to be able to enjoy the game of hockey.”