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Taking ministry on ice

May 20, 2020

Editor’s note: This is an installment of an ongoing series featuring how Catholics of the Diocese of Ogdensburg are living out their faith. To suggest an individual to be featured in this series, please call the North Country Catholic at 315-393-2920 or email dfargo@rcdony.org.

By Darcy Fargo

CANTON – Mark McKenna grew up never far from a Catholic Church.

“I grew up across from St. Mary’s Church,” said McKenna, a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. “I still across from that church. My faith has been important to me since I was a kid. The caretaker at St. Mary’s would pick us up at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. to go over to the church and ring the bells. I started an altar boy in fifth grade, and I continued serving on the altar until senior year of high school. When I was 12, I started working for the church and school mowing lawns, digging graves, cleaning the school… Church has always been part of my life.”

His faith and the teachings to serve others combined with McKenna’s love of sports to help him launch a unique ministry: sled hockey.

“I’ve always loved hockey,” McKenna said.

While he hoped to play the sport in college, he said his coach felt his engineering program’s coursework would be difficult to complete if he played for the school team. Around the same time, McKenna learned of an opportunity to coach youth hockey.

“I coached peewees that year,” he said, referring to teams of youth ages 11 and 12. “I was 18 years old. I later moved on to Bantams, ages 13 to 16. I’m still coaching.”

Coaching youth, McKenna found multiple opportunities to serve the disadvantaged, inspired by Catholic social teaching and a personal desire to help others.

“I owned a sports shop,” McKenna said. “Working in the shop, I met a lot of single parents who were trying to help their kids play hockey. I come from a blue-collar family. It’s getting so expensive to play hockey. It seemed like it was getting exclusive to families who could afford more. I worked with Canton Minor Hockey and CCM (a hockey equipment company) to get scholarships for kids to be able to play and to get starter equipment. The kids had to buy their skates and sticks, but pretty much everything else was provided to them.”

Then, sometime around 2010-11, McKenna had an experience while exercising at Fort Drum that showed him he had another calling.

“A kid came into the gym in a wheelchair,” McKenna said. “He couldn’t reach the pull-up bars. There was this wrestling mat on the floor, and it made it so he couldn’t get to the dumbbells. He got frustrated and left. I went to the manager and pointed out that they had equipment issues that made it so people in wheelchairs couldn’t use the gym. They had two pull-up bars. We lowered one to wheelchair height, and we got rid of the mat. I asked the gym manager if they offered anything like sled hockey or wheelchair lacrosse. He had never heard of it. I thought something needed to be done for these guys who are injured.”

McKenna set to work to create an opportunity for injured soldiers and athletes to participate in sports for both physical activity and community.

The Mountain Warriors Sled Hockey team was born.

In sled hockey, players are seated on a “sled” and use their hands to both move the sled around and to move, pass and shoot the puck.

Working with coaches from St. Lawrence University, Clarkson University, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton, McKenna was able to acquire used hockey equipment. USA Hockey, the governing association overseeing most hockey in the United States, offered a sled lending program. A sled manufacturer based in Canada, one of only two in North America, sent a free sled to the effort.

“I went to the Warriors Transition Unit to recruit soldiers to participate,” McKenna said. “I had 24 sign up for it. I needed six more sleds than what I had through the lending program.”

McKenna said he worked with the Knights of Columbus, VFW and area businesses to secure the funding for six additional hockey sleds.

“We started with a two-day event – you had to have at least a two-day event to participate in the lending program,” he said. “We were in Watertown on a Friday and at SUNY Canton all day Saturday. We had four different learning stations to learn sled hockey. I had different coaches helping out. The next year, we started the team.”

While the team is comprised mostly of soldiers, it also includes two individuals from the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, both wheelchair-bound athletes.

This hockey season, the team hosted its eighth annual tournament.

“We’ve become a hockey family,” he said. “And the whole community is involved in supporting it. Local businesses and organizations – including the Knights of Columbus and VFW – provide all of our food and generally support the team. I’m convinced this couldn’t be done anywhere but here in the North Country where people support our military, support hockey and are good Christian people.”

And the team has meant a lot to the players.

“I’ve had three different guys come up to me and tell me they would’ve committed suicide had it not been for sled hockey and this team,” McKenna said. “I just have to keep this thing going.”

In addition to serving others via sled hockey, McKenna is a member of the Knights of Columbus. He’s also looking to start wheelchair lacrosse in the area, largely to benefit a young woman who was disabled in an accident but loves to play the sport.

“My faith has taught me to serve others and treat them the way you want to be treated,” he said. “I’m trying to live that faith.”

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