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Derek Daniels, the director of adaptive sports and fitness at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

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Derek Daniels: Adaptive sports program director brings out the best in others

“What’s important to me is getting more people involved in the sport and widening the opportunity for people who want to play sled hockey or adaptive sports,” he said.

Believe it or not, the Blackhawks aren’t the only hockey dynasty in town.

The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab Chicago Blackhawks — formed in 1999 with the support of the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation — are hot these days. They won the NHL’s USA Hockey Sled Classic at the United Center in February, and five of the team’s players played for the gold medal-winning Team USA sled hockey team at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. That on-ice success is in no small part thanks to coach Derek Daniels, the director of adaptive sports and fitness at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (SRAlab) in Streeterville.

Not that he brags about it.

Winning games is great, but Daniels’ No. 1 priority isn’t to fill up a trophy case. It’s helping people realize their physical potential — even if they’re disabled. “What’s important to me is getting more people involved in the sport and widening the opportunity for people who want to play sled hockey or adaptive sports,” said Daniels.

Bringing out the best of other people’s athletic abilities is something Daniels has always been good at. The 40-year old native of Lapeer, a small Michigan town near Flint, had a sports obsession growing up that meant playing four varsity sports. But even then, he knew he’d never appear on a Wheaties box.

“I was more like the sixth man, the best supporting character,” he said.

But his junior varsity basketball coach recognized his people skills and savvy and asked him to coach youth sports. “That’s kind of how I realized all this could actually be a real career,” said Daniels. “I thought, yeah why not — I got spare time on my hands and I love sports.”

He hasn’t stopped since then — even if coaching isn’t always a part of his job description. Daniels worked as a fitness trainer and helped run a community sports nonprofit in Michigan before moving to Chicago in 2011 to take his current role managing the Adaptive Sports Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, or RIC. In 2017, RIC was rebranded the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab and moved into a new 1.2-million-square-foot state-of-the-art hospital facility for youth and adults with physical disabilities.

Daniels oversees 16 different adaptive sports programs which range from wheelchair basketball and rugby to rock climbing, golf, and archery. The goal is to keep each activity as close to the true game as possible but altering them just enough so that paraplegics and other disabled individuals can successfully play them on a level playing field.

“We want to keep the theory and the consistency of these games intact as much as possible,” he said.

Derek Daniels suits up to oversee a sled-hockey practice
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

What that means for adaptive hockey is the rules are almost exactly the same as NHL stars play by except for some tweaks needed to reflect that players are strapped into sleds that can be used as battering rams. “We have a rule called ‘T-Boning,’ which is when you use the front of your sled to ram it into somebody,” said Daniels. That’s a penalty.

But you don’t see an excessive number of trips to the penalty box for a group of people that always seem to have smiles on their faces when they play, says Daniels.

Those smiles keep him coming to work every day.

“Just seeing when they can effectively pedal a cycle with their arms or push a sled around the ice rink and realize hockey is something they not only can be doing but should be doing,” said Daniels. “It’s what I love.”

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