Barnhart counts his blessings while playing and growing the game in Maryland
After going into a coma due to a bilateral stroke in August 2007, Michael Barnhart has had his perspective change on life.
“Anything that has happened to me since then has just been a blessing,” Barnhart said. “I can’t ask for a better life.”
A lot has happened during that time, including Barnhart finding his love for sled hockey. He has put in hours of work to help grow the sport in his town of Hagerstown, Maryland. It has resulted in the growth of the Hagerstown Kodiaks sled hockey program and has led to Barnhart being named USA Hockey’s 2018 Disabled Athlete of the Year.
This award was first given out in 2005 and recognizes outstanding perseverance and dedication by a disabled hockey player through demonstrating the ability to overcome obstacles to pursue excellence on and off the ice.
Other notable winners of the award include U.S. National Sled Team goalie Steve Cash, who was honored in 2010.
Throughout his life, Barnhart has faced numerous health challenges. When he was 7 years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This led to his bilateral stroke at the age of 31. Barnhart was in a coma for more than two weeks.
“I had to learn my name, the ABCs and how to walk again,” Barnhart said. “I was also on dialysis for about two years.”
Since his stroke, Barnhart has had other health challenges like seizures and organ transplants. But Barnhart has continued to push through. His involvement with sled hockey has been a huge part of that.
His interest in the sport started while he was watching the U.S. National Sled Team win its third gold medal at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Then, while attending a charity 5K in Frederick, Maryland, Barnhart met current national team player Noah Grove. At the time, Grove was playing for the Bennett Blazers in Baltimore. Grove put Barnhart in communication with the team, and soon enough, Barnhart was on the ice at a clinic.
“I tried it out, and of course the first four or five times I fell over,” Barnhart said. “But I was addicted to it right away.”
While Barnhart was enjoying the sport, he was spending five hours in the car just to practice with the team. Eventually, Barnhart decided it was time to try and start a team closer to home.
“I had been practicing at my local rink during the week, so I decided to go in there and see how I could start up my own team,” Barnhart said. “I just had a vision to start a team. It was going to save me some traveling and also save a lot of people that aren’t active and have challenges.”
Since starting the team in 2016, Barnhart was been working from the ground up to build this program. He was responsible for bringing in players and was able to track down equipment with the help of various grants and USA Hockey. He now has 18 players playing with the Hagerstown Kodiaks, for which he serves as team president.
“It’s just so amazing seeing how many kids and adults come off the ice with smiles on their faces,” Barnhart said. “They’re gaining strength and improving so much.”
The work Barnhart does was enough to earn him this award. He will accept it at USA Hockey’s Annual Congress in Colorado Springs in June.
“I’m still grinning,” Barnhart said. “This sport has moved me so far. I’ve exceeded all of the goals I could’ve ever set for myself.”