GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.,-- Hockey has always been a big part of Steve Kozlowski's life. Now, he's using his love of the sport, to help dozens of kids and teens fall in love with the sport as well.
As coach of the Grand Rapids Junior Sled Wings, an adaptive hockey team, Kozlowski is empowering players with disabilities to enter the rink. Instead of two skates, the players are fitted with a special sled to sit in and that's the only difference you'll notice.
"They just want to be athletes, just like anyone else, just like their counterparts," Kozlowski. "I work them hard in practice. I make them sweat, I make them breathe hard, I make them tired by the time they go home and they thank me afterward, because they want to be pushed... It's not any different than any other hockey team. It's a team, it's camaraderie and it's worth the end results."
Dubbed "Coach Koz", Kozlowski has spent the past ten years mentoring and coaching players. He said it all started after forming the non-profit "Rinks to Links" to raise money and awareness for teams like the Sled Wings.
"I just showed up, first practice that year, and I've been here every since," he told FOX 17 News.
With Kozlowksi at the helm, the team has made a run at a national championship for the past five years and even won the title in 2015. This weekend, they're taking part in a post-season tournament in Nashville, Tennessee.
"Coach not only made it safe, he gave the kids an environment where they can play competitively, and have a lot of fun doing it," said Doug VanderMolen, one of the player's dads. "He's able to understand where the kids are coming from, and help them work together. We love Coach Koz."
More than just learning new tricks and skills with their hockey sticks, the players also take in life lessons when they're out on the ice.
"Really it's about independence on the ice, off the ice and beyond. Being independent in life," said Kozlowski. "They get their bumps and bruises just like any other hockey player, but they shake them off and they get back out there and right back at it."
Players like goalie Taggart VanderMolen have grown up, under Coach Koz's leadership.
"Coach Koz is probably the best coach I've ever had, and I've had two, and I'd pick him," he said. "He makes everyone feel equal, and gives everyone an equal chance."
Coach Koz isn't sure how long he'll hold the position, but it's a safe bet that he will stay as long as he can.
"It's just so much fun, it's so rewarding," he said. "I call them my kids because I love interacting with them out on the ice, I love hearing the cheers and seeing the smiles. It's just a unique experience that not a lot of people have had the chance to have."
As the Pay it Forward Person of the Month, Kozlowksi is receiving a $300 dollar prize.