Challenger Classic to showcase hockey skills on ‘level playing field’

Brick Stars player Eric Czaplinski celebrates a goal for the team during last year’s eighth annual Challenger Winter Classic game at the Avon Pond. The Brick Stars play the USA Wounded Warriors team Sunday, Feb. 2.
Avon Pond Volunteers Joe Kerber and Dave Force were honored by the Brick Stars for their dedication to the Challenger Winter Classic at last year’s game. Volunteers fuel the event put on annually by the Avon Pond.

Hockey players walk on water. It’s a sport that showcases strength and intensity. And for those born with challenges in any capacity, being out on the ice means competing on a level playing field, where disability doesn’t define you – your slapshot does. 

It’s why the Avon Pond Challenger Winter Classic has become the vintage, time-honored contest it is. In its ninth year, the stage is set for the annual game, which pits the Brick Stars against the USA Wounded Warriors on Feb. 2. at the Avon Pond. 

“All of the volunteers at the rink say we have one big day. And this is the day we are all buttoned-up and ready to entertain,” co-founder and organizer John O’Malley said. “This is our biggest give-back.”

The annual game is reminiscent of a Hollywood script, specifically Mystery Alaska, Mr. O’Malley said, where the hometown team represents the Jersey Shore, taking on players from across the country on a larger scale. 

Players on the Brick Stars come from all backgrounds, with ages ranging from school age to young adults. Members of the USA Wounded Warriors team come from all branches of the military who have been wounded in action. Every year the pond transforms into a stage where players share two things: Their triumph over physical and emotional setbacks and their love for the sport of hockey.

“Once they step out on the ice in the rink, they’re in a different world,” Mr. O’Malley said of the players. “They have no issues out there. It’s a level playing field. That’s their place. They work hard all year. They have few venues where they can show their skills, and this is one of them.” 

The exhibition game has become a cherished outing for the hockey community on a local and national level. The contest spotlights area players in their mastered element and veterans who served their country, sporting the price of freedom with the visible sacrifices. It’s an event both organizations look forward to. Taking place on Super Bowl Sunday every year, the Challenger Classic overshadows one of the most watched sporting events with a showing of athletes who have prevailed over even the largest of setbacks. 

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