Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Allen Hierlihy

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Hyundai is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador. After a public voting period and votes from O'Ree, NHL executives and Hyundai executives, the winner will be announced in June. There will be a winner from the United States and one from Canada. Today, a look at one of three Canada finalists, Allen Hierlihy: 

Allen and Denise Hierlihy had resigned themselves to a world without hockey for their son. 

Stand-up hockey was not working out for Dylan, who lost his left leg below the knee, his right foot and part of his right hand at nine months old because of bacterial meningitis. For Allen, who grew up in a hockey family, started skating when he was four, played and coached hockey with his dad for two decades, and dreamed of putting his son in the sport, this was something to get used to. 

One day, while doing therapeutic horseback riding with Dylan when he was around 5 or 6 years old, another family suggested they try sledge hockey. The family had never heard of the sport. 

Immediately, it felt right. As Allen said, "We were all hooked."

"We saw that it was like a hockey family," Denise said. "There are stand-up hockey teams that you hear them say, 'This is our hockey family, these are our hockey friends.' We thought, 'OK, we won't have that, but that's OK. We'll find other things.' And we did try other things, but something about sledge hockey was exactly what we were hoping for."

Allen was not content to merely place his son in the sport and watch from the sidelines. He started by pushing him, as needed. And then, when he wasn't required to push anymore, Allen (and Denise) dove into the sport from other angles, making it their passion. It's why Allen Hierlihy was named a finalist for the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award, given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. 

"When he is at the arena with the kids and even the older hockey players, it's just what he was meant to do," Denise said. "His light shines brighter."

Allen has become the heart of the Hamilton District Sledge Hockey Association over the past eight years, coaching and recruiting players and doing publicity, fundraising and fixing sleds, and organizing tournaments for the three teams within the association, from beginners on up.


"My wife probably says I spend way too much time at the arena," he said, laughing. "Just trying to get as much publicity for our kids as possible just because they deserve it and not a lot of people know about us, this game that we have."

He is working on correcting that. 

"The way I look it is you take all these different disabilities, all different kinds, and for that hour, hour and a half, they're in a sled, they're just hockey players," Allen said. 

He takes the time to help the kids, whether they're struggling with a skill on the ice or whether they are working through something outside of hockey. He brings stand-up hockey players out for sledge hockey games, putting his kids in the position of being, as he put it, the All-Star athlete. 

He has seen kids find community through sledge hockey who aren't finding it elsewhere, with friends and parents who are not daunted by extra needs, who are there to foster relationships. 

Including Dylan. 

"It's not just about the hockey," Allen said. "It's giving these kids somebody to look up too. I don't treat them like they're disabled. I like wrestling around with them in the hallways. It's giving them that experience that everybody should have."


Allen is dedicated to publicizing the sport, hosting tryouts and working with rehabilitation centers to get kids into the arena. He has gotten teams of firefighters to try sledge hockey, as well as players from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. 

Anything for publicity. Anything to get the word out, because Allen knows there's a world where his family never found sledge hockey, like Dylan never did. He doesn't want that to happen to anyone else who might benefit from and have it make a difference in their lives. When he and Dylan were finally able to skate and play hockey together, to pass the puck back and forth, he called it "probably one of the greatest feelings in the world."

"It's really not just about hockey," Denise said. "It's this little community of kids, teenagers, adults and then their caregivers and parents. It's a big, happy family."

Related Content