Goalie Owen Payton and team take second at national sled hockey tournament


Photo by Christina Payton

The Chicago Hornets sled hockey team in the locker room after a win.

By Leslie Fireman, Chronicle Advisor

West Chicago Community High School sophomore and Chicago Hornets Sled Hockey goalie Owen Payton and his team earned second place in the 2022 Sled Hockey National Championship held April 22-24 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The logo from the Disabled Sled Hockey Festival, which took place in April. (Photo by USA Hockey)

After advancing to the final by beating the NE Passage Wildcats from Durham, New Hampshire with a score of 4-2, the Hornets moved onto the championship against the Hurricanes Sled Hockey Junior team from Fargo, North Dakota.

Owen’s father, Christopher, watched the game via Facebook.

“It was very exciting, but at the same time extremely nerve-wracking.  At one point, there was a break away and the screen froze so it sent me in[to] a panic of what just happened.  I texted my wife to see if there was a goal or not.  The minutes went by so slowly, and I thought the game was never going to end,” said Christopher.

Ultimately, the Hornets lost by 1 point to the Hurricanes, but the lead-up to the national championship was just as thrilling as the game itself.

“Heading into the tournament, I was not sure how the team was going to do, so I was so excited after each win.  I kept thinking, ‘Come on guys get one more win!'” said Owen’s father, Christopher.

“It was an incredible season. I was impressed with how the coaches helped out, the teammates – everything that makes us a team. I was proud we were able to get this far into the tournament overall,” said Owen.

Sophomore Owen Payton on the ice before a game. (Photo by Christina Payton)

Owen began sled hockey a little more than two years ago, in the middle of eighth grade. While attending a movie over Thanksgiving break, he was approached by a concessions employee who encouraged Owen to look into the Hornets.

“The clerk that was working there saw I had an AFO, and he asked if I had a disability. I was like, ‘yeah, I have cerebral palsy.’ And he told me he was also disabled, and he told me about the Chicago Hornets Sled Hockey team,” said Owen.

Shortly thereafter, Owen and his mom, Christina, were able to watch a practice session, and Owen decided to join.

“There’s student coaches who volunteer to help the team, and apparently it was the sibling of two of the student coaches that told me about the [team],” said Owen.

The team has a close bond, and Owen has made a number of good friends through the organization.

“We have a good bond. We all have a disability that stands out, and that we can relate to, in a way. Shared experiences. I’ve had many times where people have seen my brace in public and they ask if I broke my leg. I explain it to them, but I have that connection with my teammates. The defenders for our team definitely support my position and the rest of the team overall,” said Owen.

Owen voluntarily took on the role of goalie this season, a new position for this veteran player who was previously a forward.

“It was definitely interesting, to say the least. Even though I’ve been part of the team for two years, I feel like this season that just came to an end was my first full season, due to COVID. They needed a goalie, and I was willing. The team set me up with the gear, and the next thing I know, I’m goalie for the team,” said Owen.

Owen acclimated to the new position rapidly: he had one practice game before he took stepped into the goal in a tournament.

“He continues to get better each time he plays.  But as parents I think the goalie position makes us most anxious because he is truly the last line of defense. It is great to see this team have their first tournament and not win a game to end the season and get second at this tournament,” said father Christopher.

Owen is known for his optimism and willingness to participate on the ice and in the classroom.

“Part of my energy towards getting my work done, and doing well in school, is part of that team because even though they have a back-up goalie, he’s not always going to be present. They rely on me to be there for the team, so even though school has been difficult at times, it will be worthwhile to support your team,” said Owen.

Payton with Hornets coach, Dave Siatta, an Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame member. (Photo by Christina Payton)

“I admire that Owen always has a positive attitude. He comes to class every day ready to learn and stays engaged in our class activities. Owen is the first to raise his hand, consistently forming connections between our content and his prior knowledge. He’s been a great addition to our class,” said Social Studies teacher Brigid Clark.

“It has been great to hear about Owen’s experience on the sled hockey team. He has kept our class updated with their progress during the year. He has made us all fans,” said Special Education/English teacher Brigitte Debs.

The Hornets Sled Hockey team was established in 2003 by JJ O’Connor as a way to give players ages 5 and up with physical disabilities a chance to play hockey. O’Connor himself suffered a tragic on-ice accident that left him paralyzed at the age of 16, while playing for the Chicago Patriots. He went on to become the chair of the Disabled Section for USA Hockey, and continues to provide opportunities for youth who love the game of hockey. The organization provides all the equipment to the players.

Famous Hornets alumni also include Kevin McKee, who now plays for Team USA in the Paralympics.

The co-ed team, based out of Mount Prospect, Illinois, which offers both novice and advanced levels, plays between 20-30 games per year, against other sled hockey teams, as well as able-bodied teams (whose players use sleds for the match-up).

As the Hornets look toward a charity game on June 7 against Athletico at the Mount Prospect Ice Arena at 6:20 p.m., and next season, father Christopher hopes they “realize that if they continue to work hard and play together they can do great things.”

Owen hopes to play sled hockey for the rest of his high school career. He intends to keep playing goalie in the fall , and looks to earn a spot on the advanced team.

“My goal is to improve, overall, to reach newer heights within the league that the team is part of,” said Owen.