DETROIT -- Mike Palmer is on a mission. A mission to make sure hockey is available to everyone, regardless of ability.
“My primary focus for Disabled Hockey Michigan is building awareness and growing the game for all abilities,” Palmer said.
Palmer is the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association director of disabled hockey, and because of his tireless efforts, Palmer is being recognized as the first Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers Game Changers honoree of July. This month, the Wings and Tigers are excited to honor individuals in the community working to create an inclusive environment for all.
Previously, the Game Changers series has celebrated those in the metro Detroit community for Black History Month, Women’s Appreciation Month, Pride Month and now, the Red Wings and Tigers recognize and honor Game Changers for Disability Pride Month. This month marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990.
“Access and opportunity guide our efforts as an organization to ensure children in our community can achieve their dreams,” said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. “This month’s Game Changers represent a wonderful cross-section of local leaders who have made it their life’s work to positively impact the lives of persons with disabilities.”
Palmer wears many hats. In addition to his position as director of disabled hockey, he also serves as the district representative to USA Hockey, the president of the Motor City Veterans Hockey Association and the associate director of the Troy Youth Hockey Association. Palmer has been involved with youth hockey for nearly six years.
“My involvement in disabled hockey really started as a player,” Palmer said. “I am a disabled veteran and I've been participating in [the] USA Hockey Warrior discipline for the last six years.”
Disabled hockey is comprised of athletes of all abilities and ages. There are six disabled disciplines supported by USA Hockey: blind, deaf/hard of hearing, sled, special, standing/amputee and Warrior Hockey.
Blind hockey allows legally blind athletes to participate in the game, while the deaf/hard of hearing discipline gives athletes diagnosed with a hearing loss the same opportunity. Sled or sledge hockey follows many of the typical rules of hockey while athletes play in specially designed sleds, affording athletes with a wide variety of disabilities the opportunity to play.
Special hockey focuses on making hockey accessible for athletes with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities. The standing/amputee discipline allows athletes with amputations, congenital or acquired, or other physical impairments the ability to play. Finally, Warrior Hockey is dedicated to making hockey an option for injured and disabled U.S. Military veterans.
Though each discipline has specific regulations and requirements, the goal remains the same -- to ensure there is a place for everyone in hockey.
“The disabled section is really comprised of athletes of all abilities, all ages and almost all of whom have faced significant adversity in their life. For many of them, hockey is their outlet,” Palmer said. “This is their opportunity to relate positively to similarly abled individuals. This gives kids the chance to go out there and be like Dylan Larkin, like Tyler Bertuzzi.”
The impact of disabled hockey extends past the athletes, themselves, to their families and builds a community of individuals with shared experiences.
“Not only does it have its recreational and health benefits of being healthy and active, but it also gives these kids and their families the opportunity to have social activity,” Palmer said. “It gets them out in the community in a safe environment. These kids get involved on a team, and the whole family is impacted. They take pride, they get to wear their hockey jacket, wear it proudly, and it's contagious.”
In Palmer’s role as director of disabled hockey, he is focused on building awareness and growing the game for all abilities. Growing established organizations and helping develop new teams are top of mind for Palmer.
“In Michigan, we have a great opportunity, being a hockey hotbed, to build a strong network of affiliate organizations that support each other,” Palmer said. “We really want to see growth across all the disciplines and hopefully add new programs that haven't previously had an impact in our community, like blind hockey. It really is about growing the game in its simplest form.”
In addition to growing the disciplines available to Michiganders in the disabled hockey program, Palmer has plans to grow opportunities for participants. Palmer would love to establish a state-recognized playoff for the program.
“To have the same opportunity to compete as other able-bodied age groups,” Palmer said about his goals for the program. “The opportunity for kids to compete for trophies or banners would give these kids that same pride that the other divisions have each year.”
The work Palmer is doing to ensure the sport of hockey can be enjoyed by everyone is exactly why the Red Wings and Tigers selected him as the first Game Changers honoree of July.
“We’re delighted to celebrate Mike Palmer and his recent appointment to serve as MAHA’s director of disabled hockey,” Brown said. “Through his leadership, we look forward to seeing Mike’s passions come to life for children with disabilities to experience hockey across Michigan.”
The honor is not lost on Palmer, who not only is grateful for the recognition, but is hoping that the spotlight will help spread the word about disabled hockey in Michigan.
“I am absolutely humbled and honored to be selected,” Palmer said. “But more importantly, I'm really proud to represent our affiliates and help raise awareness about our efforts to help athletes of all abilities. We're constantly working to grow the game, and this helps us establish relationships with the community. I'm greatly appreciative of the Red Wings and Tigers for the recognition. I believe it's just the beginning of what we can accomplish.”
Palmer’s mission is to spread the word about disabled hockey and make sure anyone who wants to play hockey in Michigan has the opportunity to do so.
“It is easy to assume that hockey is only for the able-bodied or able-minded people, but our disabled hockey program is sponsored by USA Hockey across the nation, and they're proving that the sport is for everybody,” Palmer said.