Sled hockey team offers competition
By ARLENE NISSON LASSIN CHRONICLE CORRESPONDENT
As a child, James O'Neill, loved the feeling of floating on ice. Growing up in Wisconsin, he learned to skate as soon as he could walk.
Today, O'Neill, 50, a skater and recreational ice hockey player, is giving disabled children and adults that joyous feeling by getting them on the ice.
“Skating has done so much for me, and I have made friends in every walk of life,” O'Neill said. “I thought that everyone should have the opportunity to be on the ice.”
Last year, O'Neill, of Sugar Land, envisioned a nonprofit group where anyone age 5 or older with a physical or developmental disability would be able to get experience on ice. He assembled a board of six people, an advisory board of four, and with several volunteers, created the nonprofit Star Skaters.
“This began for me when I saw a feature on television about the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped,” O'Neill said. “I saw that with a little assistance, kids were thrilled to be on the ice. I thought it would be neat to share that experience here in Houston.”
David Fleming, of Huffman, who lettered in five varsity sports in high school has been an amputee since 2003. He is now serving as captain of the sled-hockey team that is forming.
“Star Skaters stepped up to try to get funds to start our program, and I appreciate them and our other sponsors,” Fleming said. “It is great to play a sport again, and I get to feel that great sense of competition in playing.”
Ed Gavrila, owner of the New York Bagel and Coffee Shop, 9720 Hillcroft, and a former hockey player, was happy to be part of the organization's advisory board and help with fundraising efforts.
“Helping kids with a disability is a honor for me and I consider Jim O'Neill a fine man who created a wonderful organization,” Gavrila said. “I am lucky to be in a position to help and I would do anything I could for these kids.”
The organization recently had it's third fundraiser, an all-day 3-on-3 hockey tournament at Willowbrook Aerodrome, 8220 Willow Place Drive North. O'Neill's goal is to raise enough money to start a sled-hockey team for the disabled. Sled hockey is played much like regular hockey, but participants sit on a specially designed sled and have shorter sticks.
Corporate partners the Houston Aeros and TMC Orthopedic L.P. have provided jerseys and other equipment for creation of a sled-hockey team. O'Neill has interested players and has raised about $4,000 in fundraisers, but said he has a task ahead. The ice rink rental is $1,500 a month.
Willowbrook Aerodrome officials have cut the cost of their arena to assist Star Skaters. At the last demonstration of sled hockey earlier this year, there were about 100 disabled participants lining up for a chance to take the sled across the ice. TMC Orthopedic sponsored the event.
“Each person had some kind of prosthetic device on, but they were so excited to try sled hockey,” O'Neill said. “There was a line of people waiting to take their turn.”
O'Neill was an on-air radio personality from high school in the late ‘70s in Wisconsin until 1983, when he took a job in management at Metro Traffic. He won Billboard Magazine Personality of the Year in 1983. He attended Brown College in Minnesota and majored in communications.
Metro Traffic transferred him to Houston in 1987 where he worked until 2006, when he started his own video production company, Lonestar Sound and Pictures.
He makes videos for corporations and does television and radio commercials for clients such as State Farm Insurance.
Growing up playing recreational “pond hockey,” O'Neill took a break from skating through his young adult years. He found out about various ice hockey pick-up teams and leagues in the area, and resumed playing in 1993.
“Hockey has done so much for me, and I believe that it helps players stay physically and mentally in shape,” O'Neill said. “I just enjoy being around other players, and age doesn't matter. There are a lot of players older than me
O'Neill says anyone interested in being part of an ice experience or the sled hockey team to visit the organization's Web site at www.starskaters.org.