Flyers Affiliate 'Powers' Way to Powercup Championship

 
Philadelphia Flyers PowerPlay Hockey, the power wheelchair hockey affiliate of the Flyers' National Hockey League organization, recently won the 2018 Powerhockey Cup championship. The team defeated the Michigan Mustangs, 11-4, on July 18, to capture the Cup. Held every two years, the Powerhockey Cup features power wheelchair hockey teams from across the United States and Canada. 
 
The Flyers adopted the team, formerly known as the Philadelphia PowerPlay, as an official affiliate in Sept. 2017. The affiliation, the first of its kind among National Hockey League organizations, was created as part of the NHL's "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative. However, the team's journey to the North American championship of its sport goes back 19 years, to the time its foundation by the late Pat Hilferty.
 
"When the Flyers affiliated with our team, the players on the team were excited, and the parents of kids on the team cried tears of happiness because we knew what it meant for our team and for the sport. As a team, we saw things building, year by year, both on the court and off the court. This season was something very special and very emotional," said Susan Lee-Miller, the mother of 20-year-old Flyers PowerPlay captain Liam Miller.
 
Back in 1999, team founder Hilferty and friends played once a week after school under the guidance of their physical and occupational therapists. Four years later, Hilferty formally organized a team called the Philadelphia PowerPlay, playing two games per month and affiliating with the North American PowerHockey Association. Team members spanned a wide array of ages and came from all walks of life. Players have a wide range and severity of disabilities from Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, to Cerebral Palsy, to Traumatic Brain Injury. The only participatory restriction is that players must be able to safely in their wheelchairs while on the court.
 
Liam, who has been playing powerhockey for 11 years, was born with a form of muscular dystrophy. He first received his power wheelchair at age nine. His mother recalls his excitement at receiving his chair and the way that he quickly fell in love with the sport of powerhockey after he joined the PowerPlay.  After the Flyers organization adopted the PowerPlay as an affiliation, the chance to play for a team that bears the familiar "flying P" took on a very special meaning to him.
 
"My whole family loves the Flyers. The games were always on TV. I think back when I was about six years, maybe I didn't like it so much but then I really started getting into the Flyers and the NHL. Powerhockey is different from ice hockey in terms of the rules and strategies but it's a great sport, and for our team to have the Flyers name and logo is something I'm very proud of," he said.
 
The PowerPlay is a very close-knit team, as is the powerhockey community as a whole. Many of the players, including captain Miller, alternate captains Jake Saxton and Luke Hoban and 2018 Powerhockey Cup tournament MVP award winner Alex Pitts have played together for many years.
 
"This was definitely our most in synch year on the court as a team. We could feel it building, year-by-year, and we all realized that something special was happening this season. We were winning games against good teams by some big margins. Everything just came together at the right time," Liam said.
 
It wasn't always that way.
 
"I remember back to some of the tournaments we played years ago, we were the ones getting blown out by lopsided scores. Actually, one game I remember, right at the opening faceoff, a guy on the other team shot immediately and scored. I had never seen anything like that before. I though, 'Uh oh. We're in trouble today.' But we got better each year."
 
Winning the Powerhockey Cup championship culminated an emotional roller coaster for the Philadelphia Flyers PowerPlay. In May 2017, team founder Patrick Hilferty passed away as a result of complications from his Muscular Dystrophy. The team also mourned the passing of another player, Pete Henkel, due to SMA.
 
"That was very hard on all of us. We dedicated our season and the Powerhockey Cup to Pat and Pete," Liam Miller said. 
 
Although powerhockey is a competitive sport in which teams seek strategic advantages on the court, at its root it exists not only as an outlet not only for members to play hockey but for players and family members to socialize in an atmosphere of acceptance. Experienced and older players often mentor the younger, inexperienced ones.
 
In powerhockey, players are not classified by age and the range varies widely from early adolescent players to adults. However, there are rules pertaining to physical ability levels.
 
Participating players are classified as level 1, 2 or 3, based on their level of ability. Level 1 players, although dealing with disabilities that make them rely on power wheelchairs, are able to stickhandle, reach for loose balls on the court, pass and shoot with some authority. Level 3 players, who deal with the most severe physical challenges but still have the capacity to safely operate their wheelchairs on the court, have their sticks attached to their wheelchairs. Level 2 players fall in a very wide median physical ability range between levels 1 and 3. 
 
Under the rules of the North American Powerhockey Association, teams may not have more than one level 1 player on the court at a given time and there must be at least one level 3 player at all times.There is broad discretion with the level 2 category. Everyone gets a chance to play.
 
:"There aren't a lot of line changes, unlike ice hockey, because you don't get tired operating a power wheelchair up and down the court. Teams in the tournament can be pretty strategic in terms of their level 2 personnel while still playing within the rules," Liam said. 
 
Over the last year in particular, the Philadelphia Flyers Power Play has forged a close bond with the Flyers Alumni Association. Alumni members have been very supportive of the team, and the PowerPlay have played several exhibition games against the Flyers Alumni Team. Before the playoffs, Flyers Alumni Association president Brad Marsh presented a $2,500 check to the Power Play to help the team offset some of its expenses for the Powerhockey Cup tournament.
 
"The Flyers Alumni have been wonderful," said Susan Lee-Miller. "First of all, our players are excited see these guys who played pro hockey in the NHL. But, more than that, the Alumni guys have taken a personal interest in our team and players, which is a dream come true for Liam and his teammates. We're very grateful."
 
Marsh said that the real inspirational figures are the Flyers PowerPlay players and families.
 
"Honestly, it's the least we can do. They are great people, tremendous families. We have fun with the exhibition games and spending time with them is a pleasure. Our donation hopefully helped out a little bit with the expenses. The main benefit, I hope, is that the Flyers PowerPlay know that the Flyers Alumni are rooting them on. They are part of the Flyers family, too. It's not just a name," Marsh said.