Rob Hughes – From Paralympian to Major Junior Hockey Statistician

Pro players
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Bret Wills
Pro players
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Hughes was born with Cerebral Palsy forty years ago.
He moved to Sarnia to be closer to a coach while continuing to pursue his Parasport career.
Hard work can offer you an opportunity at the next level if you remain committed to the task at hand.

The Beginning and the Paralympics

If you ask Rob Hughes how he got here, he’d tell you a tale of a single mother who learned that her child was born with cerebral palsy and that at an early age, an attitude was instilled in him to learn to adapt to his surroundings and grow within the scope of life.

Hughes is a 40-year-old statistician with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting and a former Paralympian who relocated to Sarnia from Brampton in 2007 to be closer to a new throw coach as he prepared for competition, whether it was a World Championship or Paralympic Games.

While trying to figure out how he would commit to living in Sarnia, Hughes decided to take some courses at the local Lambton College and stumbled upon Sports Management. When it came time to look for a co-op, he noticed a position with the Sting was available. Hughes said he emailed the General Manager at the time to see if he could provide the specifics of the job at the time, not disclosing during the call that he had a disability.

“I noticed that there was a posting on the coop board for a position with the Sarnia Sting that plays at the arena that’s on campus. So I sent an email to the General Manager at the time, and he requested that I come in for an interview. So I went in for an interview, but I didn’t disclose that I had a disability. I think when they first met me, they were a little shocked. But I think that’s just a natural reaction for a lot of people who are able-bodied and don’t have much experience dealing with people with disabilities. I just think it’s a natural reaction.''

Hughes at a competition.
Hughes in action during a Para-Athletics competition.

Attitude, Accessibility & Adapting

Hughes credits his personality and his experience as a Paralympian to his attitude towards his opportunity with the Sting.

Initially, it was a steep learning curve when they tasked him with keeping track of players' time on ice for 68 games. He was fortunate that, despite his challenges, they asked him to travel with the team on the road. Luckily for him, the Sting used a kneeling bus, and very limited accommodations were required for him to travel. “Wheelz”, as they affectionately call him, was designated the first three rows of the bus, but because they wanted to include him, they were flying by the seat of their pants to accommodate, but included Hughes in every process to resolution.

"Luckily, we had a bus that would already kneel. I was able to get onto the bus quite easily because the step wasn’t very high. So they decided that we'd put Wheelz in the first three rows so he wouldn’t have to go further back. At least they made it so I didn’t have to go further back.”

Now entering his sixteenth season this coming fall during the 2023-2024 season, Hughes's role has evolved to where he works with college interns and the online scoring system, where he adds live stats so that people who are tuning in from home can see things as they happen.

Hughes points out that although the job has provided him with so many great opportunities, the biggest challenge to his role is the lack of arena accessibility, which includes other arenas across the province.

If Hughes was on the road and unable to fulfill the role he was hired to do, he would evolve and adapt by doing something else constructive to help the team succeed. He credits his ability to adapt to situations on the job in part to what he learned at Lambton, whether it be software or hardware that many organizations use in the league. 

During his time in Sarnia, Hughes, who is as humble as they come, remarks that the best part of his job is watching the success of the players. Whether they move on to the National Hockey League, use their education package to further their hockey career, or play in Europe, the success of the players is what Hughes is proud to witness and be a part of.

He values the relationships he’s developed and is always excited when a former player reaches out to him, sees him at the rink or in public, and acknowledges him.

Hughes, who doesn’t believe he should be defined by his disability or the challenges that can come with it, has been with the organization through three coaching changes, two changes in equipment managers, two changes in their athletic therapy department, and a major ownership group change that includes former NHLers Derian Hatcher and David Legwand.

He’s proud of the fact that no matter who has been part of the organization, the theme that continuously comes up is family. He knows that they have his back, not just because he works hard and it shows, but because of the culture of the organization.

“The fact that I still text some of these guys to this day makes it obvious that I’ve had an impact on them too. Bringing back some of those memories. When the new ownership came in, it included NHL veteran Derian Hatcher, and when you look at him initially, he looks like a pretty intimidating body. It was a little intimidating talking to him at first, but once I got to know him, it was just like family. But that’s what we are, a family."
Sarnia Sting
December 10th, 2021: Rob Hughes, a Sarnia Sting game-day staffer in his 14th season with the Ontario Hockey League club, posed with his new motorized wheelchair.

Memories, Role Modeling, Family

If you ask him about his fondest moment with the Sting, he reminisces about this past season when expectations were exceeded during the playoffs in the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference. 

Hughes wants future generations to keep striving to be their best. He feels that as long as you have the right people in your corner and a positive attitude, anything is achievable, and he is a testament to that. He also believes that although ableism exists in the world — whether intentional or not — it’s up to you to be the best version of yourself. He has never liked the idea of a handout. He knows if he’s made a mistake, he’ll have a discussion about it, and everyone will move on. 

Hughes believes the Sting’s culture is one of family, and you don’t have to go far to find out why he believes this. Former NHL right winger and Sting head coach Trevor Letowski regularly keeps in touch with Hughes, even though he moved on to other aspirations in 2014.

He names current NHL veterans Pavel Zacha and Jakob Chychrun, who have kept in touch since they moved on to the next level.

Hughes understands that his opportunity with the Sting will be there for him as long as he wants it, but he is also aware that the OHL and the CHL are feeder leagues for other opportunities if given the chance. Hughes is focused on staying motivated for the 2023–2024 season, and although at this time he doesn’t know, he’s excited to see what materializes throughout. 

“You can always strive to excel or be better at something you are doing. So for me, being in the OHL is a development league. So, if I keep going, who knows? Maybe I’ll get my opportunity at the next level, right? It’s a development league for everyone. Do the hard work, and you can get that call to the next level.”

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