Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Jerry DeVaul

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Discover 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 Discover 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 U.S. finalists, Jerry DeVaul.

Jerry DeVaul was president of the Warrior Avalanche, a hockey team made up of Paralympians and wounded veterans, when he helped former Colorado Avalanche players Jan Hejda and Milan Hejduk put on a sled hockey clinic for disabled children in 2017.

“They pushed the kids around in sleds that had only use of one hand or whatever,” said DeVaul, who had been a player with Colorado Sled Hockey Association for about a year at that point.

“One of the parents was like, ‘My kid hasn’t smiled in over 10 years.’ When I heard that, I was like, ‘Wow, that is unbelievable.’ Because every kid should be able to smile in life. It shouldn’t take an event like this, but if we can offer an event like this to kids with disabilities, that’s even better.”

DeVaul said the event made him “super passionate” about trying to help out Colorado Sled Hockey more. Now president of the association since 2022, DeVaul’s continued work in introducing sled hockey to disabled children and adults in Colorado Springs, Colorado, DeVaul is a first-time finalist for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

“It’s a huge opportunity because it speaks about the community, I’ve been able to help and that’s been one of my goals, is to try and help inspire others that are in similar situations as myself,” DeVaul said. “It’s remarkable because the past winners and recipients, the amount of work they’ve put in, it’s a huge accomplishment. I don’t have words for how thankful I am.”

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The Colorado Sled Hockey Association, based in Littleton, Colorado, approximately 20 minutes south of Denver, was formed in 1995. One year later, it joined the Colorado Avalanche to become the first NHL-affiliated sled hockey team.

The association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has a youth team as well as A, B, and C travel teams. Its home rinks are in Denver and Littleton, while Greeley Ice Haus in Greeley, Colorado, about an hour north of Denver, also offers an hour of open ice exclusive to sled hockey players on most Sundays.

A United States Army veteran who served for eight years as a vehicle mechanic, DeVaul lost his legs above the knee in a coal mining accident in 2011. Sled hockey, which he first tried in 2016, provided a much-needed outlet.

“It motivated me,” DeVaul said. “It was a driving factor of who I am today. I got to see the hockey community as a whole at different events and when I was interacting with the people I was like, ‘Wow, this is no community I’ve ever been part of.’

Marty Richardson, president of Dawg Nation Hockey Foundation in Colorado, which donates money to families in the United States and Canada that are going through tough times, said DeVaul has “a ton of really amazing adjectives” that make him worthy of the award.

“I’d start with ‘leader,’ and that comes from sports-oriented background in high school to serving his country and really leading and being the president of Colorado Sled Hockey which is the premiere sled hockey organization in the world, in my opinion,” said Richardson, a three-time Willie O’Ree Award finalist from 2021-23.

“Resilience is a big one for him; so is determination and a positivity. What Jerry is, is a visionary, and he sees the opportunities not just for himself and others who may not have tried sleds yet. He’ll be, ‘What if we do this? What if we can add this to our program?’ He might not be the guy that executes it at the end, but he’s the guy who thinks of these things. [The association is] amazing and they end up helping lots of lives.”

DeVaul has found his place with the Colorado Sled Hockey Association. He wants to welcome others to the community as well.

“You give them a purpose,” DeVaul said. “And I think that’s ultimately the best thing is when you give someone a purpose, you never know what they can turn into.”

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