Hockey, and sports in general, can make for a wonderful diversion. When the mind needs a break, there is nothing like a whirl around the backyard rink or a game of knee hockey with the little ones to put us at ease. Sports allow for a brief leave of absence from the everyday, a momentary breather from the rigors of reality. For many of us, the reality that we seek refuge from involves a tough day at the office or a demanding school schedule. But for Todd and Christie Jenkins, their reality is significantly more challenging, and has been since they heard these five words more than a decade ago:
“Your baby has spina bifida.”
Spina Bifida is a birth defect that occurs in the first month of a pregnancy, when the two sides of an embryo’s spine fail to join together. This can lead to paralysis, as the spinal cord is left unprotected. For the Jenkinses, the diagnosis for their child was that the spinal column had fused from the base of the skull all the way down to the third lumbar vertebrae, around the waistline, but had stopped fusing there. In order to limit the possibility of paralysis, their best chance was to undergo a new and aggressive procedure that attempted to close the opening while their baby was still in utero. So with Christie 22 weeks pregnant with the couple’s first child, they traveled to Nashville’s Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where they became only the 87th couple to have fetal surgery to help repair the opening in their baby’s spine. After 100 days of post-surgery bed rest, Christie gave birth to their son, Nicholas. It was July of 2000.
Thanks to the surgery in Tennessee, baby Nicholas was spared significant paralysis. And aside from weak hip and thigh muscles, Nicholas grew into a perfectly normal little boy. An exceptionally bright and active child, Nick joined the Cub Scouts and was a star student at school. As his bone growth outpaced his muscle strength, Nick went from using a walker to a wheelchair. Not one to let that get in the way of his interests, eight-year-old Nick attended the DisAbility Sports Festival at Cal State Bernardino, playing a variety of sports. The next spring, he finished his first triathlon, and spent summer days riding his handcycle. Strong leg muscles or not, Nick had a love of sport, and yearned for a more physical activity. But a local search turned up limited opportunities. There were organizations and sports for adults with physical disabilities, and youth organizations that catered to children with developmental delays, but Nick and his parents had a difficult time finding a physical activity that involved children like him — perfectly capable of mind, but slightly limited in physical tools.
Then in the spring of 2009, the Jenkins family received an e-mail that may end up changing the hockey landscape in Southern California forever. A family in Wisconsin, whose child was also affected by spina bifida, and who also underwent surgery in Nashville in the winter of 1999, had kept in touch with Todd, Christie, and Nick over the years. In the e-mail were a series of photographs and a video of the Wisconsin couple’s son taking part in sled hockey. Sled hockey, or sledge hockey, is an adaptation of the winter sport where the participants sit on sleds and use a pair of short hockey sticks, equipped with picks on the ends, to propel themselves around the ice. Nick was captivated. His dad, whose last visit to an ice arena was to see the Atlanta Flames play in 1979, wasn’t as sure.
And this is where Nick gets awesome.
Not at all intimidated by the seemingly high entry barriers for his new pursuit, Nick hopped on the computer. He discovered that there was a sled hockey organization in his home state, seven hours away in Sacramento. He e-mailed them. He continued his research and found that USA Hockey sanctioned a national sled hockey team. He e-mailed them too. Todd and Christie, seeing the enthusiasm and excitement in their little boy’s eyes, ran with it. They made calls, they booked ice time. They arranged delivery of some borrowed sled hockey equipment from Indiana and started to spread the word. Christie spent most of her May 2nd birthday assembling sleds. And on May 3, 2009, the newly-formed Southern California Sled Hockey Association held its first on-ice clinic in Ontario, CA. With virtually no local history of the sport to speak of, Nick and his parents were ecstatic when 100 people showed up, with 45 people taking to the ice.
A year later, with help from the Sacramento Lightning Sled Hockey Team, they held a second clinic that saw 85 people in sleds. Some players hit the ice for the very first time. Others, like a young man from Iowa, had played sled hockey for nine years. Another young woman had played conventional ice hockey before an injury halted her career. But there they all were, gliding around the same sheet of California ice. Laughing. Loving it. Nicholas’s passion, excitement, and call to action had spread hockey fever. Todd and Christie knew that their son had started something special. So they continued on.
The summer of 2010 saw the first-ever regular season for SoCal Sled Hockey. Using borrowed and donated equipment, more than a dozen regulars took to the ice for a nine-week in-house session. What started out as a concept in the mind of an eight-year-old had become a refuge for people just like him, and changed all of their lives in the process.
Now here’s where you get to be awesome.
Hockey is expensive. The equipment, the ice time, the sticks — none of it is cheap. Sled hockey is no different, with competition sleds costing as much as $650. Nick and his team need your help, and thanks to Pepsi, it won’t cost you a a dime. Instead, Pepsi’s Refresh Project simply seeks your mouse clicks. Each month, the company is giving away $1.3mil in grants to deserving initiatives. Todd and Christie entered SoCal Sled Hockey into the $25,000 bracket, and if they end the month of November in the top 10, they will be awarded the money. That money will launch SoCal Sled Hockey into the next level, and will pay for brand new sleds, safety equipment, and enough ice time to host their second season, slated for March 2011.
They cannot do this without every one of you. The hockey community is a tight-knit, passionate group. Nick and his family are now one of us, and it is our responsibility to help them when they need our assistance. Right now, and straight through the month of November, is that time.
Here’s what you can do:
- First, vote for Nick using the link in the left sidebar. Once on the Pepsi Refresh page, click the “Vote for this idea” button on the right hand side. It’s free, and you don’t even need to sign up to vote. Vote once a day, every day, through the end of the month. I changed all of my browsers so that Nick’s page is my homepage, and now I vote each morning when I turn on my computer. I encourage each one of you to do the same. If you would prefer to text your vote instead of submitting online, text 102873 to 73774 (Pepsi). This, too, can be done once per day.
- Second, spread the word. Share this story using the links at the bottom of this post. Post it on your Facebook page, tweet it on Twitter, e-mail it to your family and friends. It’s not often that we get an opportunity to change the world by simply clicking a mouse. But Nick started this movement by doing just that, and I urge every one of you to follow in his footsteps. Harness the power of your social network to make SoCal Sled Hockey a permanent fixture in our hockey family.
The $25k grant would kick the program off in grand style, and the hope is that the buzz of new equipment and a full winter season in 2011 will help the organization self-sustain moving forward. Once they reach that goal, their list of aspirations is longer than a sheet of ice. They are hoping to use some of the grant money to apply to become an official 501(c)(3) charity, making donations to their organization tax-deductible. They’d like to split their players into age-based levels in San Bernardino, then expand their reach to San Diego, Ventura, and Los Angeles, cities that have inquired about satellite programs. What’s hockey without travel? The team would love to visit other sled hockey organizations for tournaments and friendly scrimmages. Right now, they are targeting programs in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Lastly, they also hope to be classified as an official Paralympic program, which qualifies members of SoCal Sled Hockey to be chosen for the U.S. National Sled Hockey team. Their ultimate goal would be to have a member of their organization chosen for the 2018 Winter Paralympics. By then, Nick would be 17.
There is a lot of work to be done before any of those dreams come true, and much of the work lies not with Nick, Todd, or Christie. It lies with me and you. My request of you, reading this right now, is to show the Jenkins family what a wonderful group of people the hockey community is made up of. Nick started this movement by sending a few e-mails out to people that could help. Let’s take his lead and do the same. Nick is a member of our extended hockey family, and with our help, he can share the sport of hockey with the rest of Southern California and beyond.
Hockey can make for a great diversion, but it can also become much more than that. Anyone who has played will tell you as much.
Coach Herb Brooks once said, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” Nicholas Jenkins, then just a kid from California, seized the moment and built a sled hockey program from scratch.
What will you do with your opportunity?
Thank you to Todd, Christie, Nick, and Steven Jenkins for their assistance in writing this. To learn more about the Southern California Sled Hockey Association, visit their Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.