The DeStafneys: Skating Past Challenges
Justin DeStafney loves to play hockey.
The cool, crisp air of an ice rink exhilarates him, and the solid ice beneath his skates make him feel free and confident.
“I guess it’s where I can truly succeed at something I can do well,” says the 20-year-old Wilmington resident. “It’s energizing and exciting being part of a team.”
Born with spina bifida, DeStafney takes the ice in a specially-designed sled that sits on top of two hockey skate blades. He uses two sticks with metal picks on the end for maneuvering and propelling himself across the ice.
The Del Tech student is a goalie for the Delaware Sled Snipers (DSS), a competitive youth hockey team founded in 2008 by his mother, Tammy, and his father, Chris, for physically challenged male and female athletes typically 7-20 years of age. The team plays in Delaware as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.
Mark Martell, who runs The Snipers Ice Hockey organization out of the University of Delaware, helped the DeStafneys get DSS started. The couple reached out to him when they decided Delaware needed a supportive and competitive ice hockey team for physically challenged youth and their families.
DSS is the only competitive team for physically challenged youth in Delaware. “There are adult programs, but no youth programs that are specific to physical disabilities,” says Tammy. “There’s not a whole lot for them to do to stay physically healthy. There are programs like Special Olympics, but some of our players do not qualify as they don’t have developmental delays.”
“The only requirement (to participate in DSS) is that something has to keep the player from participating in ‘stand up’ ice hockey,” she says.
Tammy is the nonprofit’s manager and fund raiser, and Chris is a DSS coach. Before DSS, the DeStafneys traveled to New Jersey so Justin could play for a team there.
DSS players include amputees, athletes with limb deficiency, cerebral palsy or spinal cord injury. The team has had as many as 14 players and as few as four.
In early 2018, DSS honored two players who died battling childhood cancer: Leon Huhn, who died in 2016, and Nathan Silpath, who passed away last year. Both had lost the ability to use their legs due to the illness.
“They always came to games champing at the bit to get on the ice, and many times these guys were just coming off chemo treatments and being in the hospital,” says Justin. “They didn’t take being able to play for granted.”
Justin’s 13-year-old brother, Jared, who is an actor and volunteers at the Wilmington Drama League, says Justin and the team have taught him to persevere. “They don’t stop even when they’re sick; they keep on rolling.”
Older athletes also inspire the younger ones by showing them that despite limitations you can still do such things as go away to college and live there, says Tammy.
The DeStafneys, who work for BYN Mellon, an investment company in Wilmington, need to raise $10,000 annually to cover expenses, including ice time and equipment. Besides proceeds from 5K races, DSS receives donations from friends and partners, including the Open Net Foundation and the Delaware Bobcats of the Mid-Atlantic Women’s Hockey League.
“We don’t charge players to play,” says Tammy. “Some of our families have financial hardships.” When they fall short on funds, the DeStafneys are forced to reduce the amount of ice time, which can cost $230-$275 an hour at the University of Delaware Ice Arena.