Update on Nick Jenkins and SoCal Sled Hockey

I’ve written a lot of posts here at Backyard-Hockey.com, but one of my favorites came last winter when I spoke with Todd Jenkins, a husband and father of two boys from California. Todd’s eldest son, Nick, was born with Spina Bifida, a spinal birth defect that has him spending most of his days in a wheelchair. When Nick was eight, a family friend sent him a series of pictures, including one of the sport of sled hockey. Nick was captivated, and vowed to start his own sled hockey team with the help of his parents. Nick’s story, and the story of the Southern California Sled Hockey Association, can be read here.

When we last spoke with the Jenkins family, they were entered to win a Pepsi Refresh grant that would provide their sled hockey team with the necessary funds to take Nick’s vision and grow it into a fully-functional, full-season organization. Until that point, the Jenkinses — Nick, Todd, mom Christie, and little brother Steven — had put in untold hours of hard work getting a pair of clinics and short regular season off the ground. With little financial backing, the family single-handedly introduced their community to a sport not common in California, and helped local kids and adults experience the sport of hockey, many for the first time. By the time the last vote had been cast for the Pepsi grant, the Jenkinses had poured their heart and soul into what they hoped would become a mainstay in Southern California. But despite the great response our story received and the social media buzz generated by the hockey community, the Southern California Sled Hockey Association did not finish inside the top ten and was not awarded a grant.

“We were all very frustrated that we didn’t go further in the Pepsi Refresh program over the course of several months,” said Todd yesterday. “We got as high as #16, but only the top ten got funded in our category.”

At that point, nobody would have complained if the Jenkinses packed it in and moved on in search of other adventures. And to a degree, that’s exactly what they did.

“This summer we went on a two-week, 2500-mile vacation to Oregon and Washington, visiting family and attending a fetal surgery reunion in Portland.” (If you recall, Nick had surgery when Christie was 22 weeks pregnant to close his spina bifida lesion). “We bought Nick a FreeWheel attachment for his wheelchair, which enables him to go through the woods, rocks, loose dirt, grass and other terrain that would normally make his chair bog down. That’s been very liberating for him, and we hope he’ll get a lot of use out of it in Boy Scouts this year. Nicholas has also done a We Will Surf Again event in Huntington Beach and the Loma Linda Triathlon, and has gotten a lot of use out of his handcycle.”

Just another ho-hum summer in the Jenkins household, I’m learning. But even with their ever-adventurous attention focused elsewhere, the allure of sled hockey remained.

“Despite the headaches with Pepsi, and the general lack of funding opportunities over the past year, we know that the sled hockey team is a project worth realizing,” says Todd. “The response from our participants has been overwhelmingly positive.”

So when Todd received an email from Cotie Williams of Loma Linda University’s PossAbilities alerting him to funding she’d managed to set aside, the Jenkins family jumped into action.

“It was hard because the local hockey teams were already claiming much of the ice time, but we managed to land a slot at IceTown in Riverside. While this is the first time we’ll have held an event at IceTown, they were among the first people to really buy into our vision for the program, so we’re excited to be there.”

This year’s clinic, SoCal Sled Hockey’s third since 2009, will be held on Sunday, September 4th, from 2 to 5pm. The clinic is free of charge, and open to anyone who wants to give sled hockey a shot. No prior experience is required, just be sure to bring warm clothes. And while the roster of special guests is still in the works, it’s safe to say the Jenkinses won’t be the only folks who have done this before.

“We have nailed down Ray Free from the Sacramento Lightning and Shin Kyoungmoon from the South Korean national sled hockey team, and Rico Roman from the U.S. national team might also be on board.”

Despite the challenges the group has faced in the last year, there is still hope that this won’t be the last SoCal Sled Hockey event. “Pepsi restructured the [Refresh Project] program, and now there isn’t even a category we can fit into! But that was just a signal that we were barking up the wrong tree and it was time to go in new directions.”

One new direction involves the Royal Bank of Canada and their ‘RBC Play Hockey’ initiative, which awards grants to hockey programs to encourage the growth of the game in the US and Canada. Says Todd: “We put in an application at the beginning of the year and didn’t make the first cut in April, but we were carried over for consideration again in November. We have requested $25,000, which would completely fund all the sleds, sticks, and safety gear we would need for the entire program, plus a year’s worth of ice time. So we really hope that will pan out for us. If not, we are still digging up other possibilities for funding. They’re not as prevalent as they used to be, but there are still folks out there who are willing to fund programs like ours.”

And so the Jenkins family continues to plan and apply and work and do everything they can to make this a reality, not only for their son Nick, but for the dozens of people who have felt the rush of sled hockey as a result of his vision. Nick was eight years old when he first laid eyes on a hockey sled, and he turned eleven last month. In those three years, more than 100 people have had the opportunity to glide around the slabs of Southern California and experience the game in ways they never thought they could. And despite setbacks and disappointments, the Jenkins clan trudges on. Todd explains why:

“There are few things more rewarding than showing the disabled how much they can accomplish when doors are opened for them. This is our particular door, and we will keep pressing on until we can get our kids and adults on the ice regularly.”

Playing regularly is something many of us take for granted. Many of the organizations we play in now, or played in as kids, were started by people like Todd and Christie, people who’s passion and determination sometimes overruled common sense or the easy way out. It remains to be seen if the Southern California Sled Hockey Association will win an RBC Play Hockey grant and take the next step. But when the Jenkinses are involved, anything is possible.

To keep up with SoCal Sled Hockey or to get more information on the upcoming clinic, click ‘Like’ on their Facebook page.

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