Guest Blog by Steve Kozlowski, Grand Rapids Sled Wings Coach
Hello, my name is Steve Kozlowski. Athletes and parents call me Coach Koz, or just Coach. I currently coach the Grand Rapids Sled Wings youth program but it’s important to know that the youth and adult programs and all of our coaches and coordinators work as one unit, one team.
In my seven years as a coach with the Sled Wings I often get asked, “What made you get involved?” To me, it’s obvious. I’ve been given an opportunity to help athletes showcase their abilities and talents and to encourage the world not to judge because of a wheelchair, crutches or maybe just a limp.
Pride in accomplishment is one of our essential coaching platforms. That means teaching athletes that their hard work, determination and teamwork will create results.
The 2014-15 Sled Wings Youth Team has taken pride to the highest level. A group of young people (the average player age is 13) competed in an 18-and-under division. Three 16-year-old players were asked to be leaders and mentors to the 10- to 14-year-old players. Our 12-year-old goalie is playing a position usually held by older (and bigger) athletes. In each instance, the response to me was, “No problem, Coach, we’ve got this!”
The past two seasons ended a step short as we were National runners-up. Our program had not yet known the feeling of attaining The Top Spot In The Nation. This year’s team wasn’t going to allow that to happen again. They have too much pride!
During the season there were a few setbacks, three one-goal losses, one to Ohio and two to Johnstown. Overall, we tallied a very impressive 18-3 regular season record with tournament championships in Columbus and Wooster, Ohio. As the USA National Hockey Festival in Buffalo, N.Y. approached, we got the news that we would face the two teams that had handed us losses as well as the team that beat us in the National Championship game each of the last two seasons. No small task, to say the least!
As we arrived at our hotel Thursday night, I noticed that the athletes were more focused than ever! Do we really have to play at 7 a.m. Friday, though? We’re historically not a good morning team! But as we arrive at the rink at 6:15 a.m. there is energy in the air. The players took in the atmosphere and were actually dressed and ready to go with plenty of time to spare…not something that Coach is used to.
From then on, the weekend seemed surgical! As one of our players put it, “We have transformed a band of misfits, into a band of brothers.” The Sled Wings family had arrived to showcase their abilities! Taking down one opponent at a time with margins of victory that left no doubt, the Grand Rapids Sled Wings, 13 brothers forever, had accomplished their ultimate goal…National Champions!
So ask me again, “What made you get involved?” My answer, “These young athletes have a lot to be proud of and I’m honored that I’m able to help them let the world know!
Learn more about the Mary Free Bed Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports department.