Donley has played an active role in the growth of disabled hockey over the past decade
The then-45-year-old was volunteering at a sled hockey practice and was pushing kids around the ice. A young boy named Nathan really stood out.
“The joy on his face mimicked the joy I felt the very first time I got on the ice,” Donley said. “I fell in love with the joy that he had in his face, so it just became a natural progression for me. I love watching people succeed, and this is just an area I had gotten involved in and I loved it.”
The area that Donley fell in love with is adaptive hockey, also known as disabled hockey. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident quickly embraced helping out with disabled hockey disciplines and has carved out quite the volunteering resume working with athletes over the years.
“It’s pretty much an everyday thing for me,” Donley said.
Donley, who didn’t pick up hockey until she was 41, went to the rink that first time to help with sled hockey because her son needed some volunteer hours for school. She hasn’t looked back since.
In 2009, Donley got involved with the Colorado Springs Amateur Hockey Association (CSAHA) Tigers sled hockey program and became the manager. Later on, she got on the board of directors and is currently the adaptive hockey coordinator.
The Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) took notice of Donley’s success and she was appointed vice president of adaptive hockey in 2014. She helped put together the rules for sled hockey in the state. When Donley first started with CAHA, sled hockey was the only disabled discipline offered. In the last five years, warrior, blind and special hockey have been added with the aid of Donley.
“I’ve gotten to see four of the disciplines grow,” Donley said.
The first Try Blind Hockey Day in Colorado took place in 2018 with Donley being a leading player in the charge. The event was hosted by the Colorado Avalanche, and Donley noted the NHL team has had a big influence on the growth of disabled hockey in the state.
Disabled hockey isn’t just growing in Colorado but all throughout the U.S.
“It just goes to show people that hockey is for everyone,” Donley said. “When I first started, I really only thought that there was sled and special, and in the course of 10 years now we’ve seen warrior take off and blind take off.”
Try Blind Hockey Day brought out about 50 blind hockey players of all ages from toddlers to nearly senior citizens. Donley recalls a 60-year-old who was an avid hockey player growing up before losing his vision and had to stop playing the game he loved. When the man got a chance to get back on the ice at the Try Blind Hockey Day, he shared a message with Donley: “‘If I die today, I will die a happy man.’ It just broke me.”
The success of the Try Blind Hockey Day led to the formation of the Colorado Visionaries Blind Hockey Club. Donley is in an advisory role for the club.
Donley’s biggest opportunity working with adaptive hockey came in April 2018 when U.S. Blind Team head coach Mike Svac called and asked if she wanted to be the team’s general manager. Donley was thrilled to take a role in one of the fastest growing disabled disciplines.
When the U.S. Blind Hockey Team took on Canada in Pittsburgh last year, a pregame moment really struck a chord for Donley.
“That was probably the highlight of everything in my entire time volunteering is watching all of these athletes line up on the blue line — here they are blind and they thought something was taken away from them and now they’re wearing USA on their jersey and the national anthem plays,” Donley said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I still get emotional.”
Drawing from 10 years of volunteering with disabled disciplines, Donley has been able to use her past experiences to her advantage in her role as U.S. Blind Team general manager. She believes she adds two key pieces to the program.
“One, I’m somewhat administrative in my mindset,” Donley said. “I like to be pretty organized and I like to learn the rules. We started out right away making sure that we were in compliance with the rules of USA Hockey. The second piece is, they call me Mom, even though I am their GM. I love to nurture. They nicknamed me Mom. It doesn’t matter how old they are, either. There’s a 60-year-old that calls me Mom.”
Donley has two kids of her own along with two grandkids, but it warms her heart when she hears players call her that special name.
“I always wanted a lot of kids,” she said. “Now I just have a gazillion.”
It’s an exciting time for disabled hockey and Donley loves being right in the mix. She doesn’t have any plans on leaving her volunteer opportunities anytime soon.
“I have a 90-year-old father-in-law,” the 55-year-old Donley said. “I’m guessing I have at least 35 years left in me.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.