In 1991, Pat Flick from the Grandravine Athletic Association in Toronto was moved by a young developmentally challenged boy who always came out to watch his brother play hockey but was never allowed to play himself. With the help of the Association, he birthed the Grandravine Tornadoes with two disabled players. This incredible move opened up a whole new world for these children who, up to this time, had been sidelined with an ache to be able to do what their able siblings were doing.
The movement spread to St. Louis, Missouri, where the Gateway Locomotives created a hockey opportunity for disabled youth. In the next four years, two more clubs were formed: the Durham Dragons in Ajax, Ontario, and the Ottawa Valley Ambassadors in Ottawa. The following year, the teams, who had been playing with each other in yearly tournaments, formed Special Hockey International (www.specialhockeyinternational.org).
In 2002, a team was formed in London, England. Each year, the teams rotate between the three countries to play in the tournament and make new friends. All of the players in every team play four games and they all cheer when the other team scores a goal! After the tournament, there is a party and the young people dance and celebrate into the night, coming home with an experience that they will never forget.
The story for the creation of each of these teams begins with someone noticing the longing in a young, disabled person to be able to play hockey like their able siblings and friends. Instead of playing hockey in the hallways, they can now play on the rink. There is no age restriction and each player is taken on his or her own merit. The game is not played as a competition, but for the camaraderie. It doesn’t matter if the child is able to skate, only that they have a desire to play a team sport; they will learn and their teammates and coaches will help them.
Many of the young people have Down’s syndrome, autism, learning disabilities and physical disabilities. They develop life skills, friendships and the ability to cope with everyday life. In many cases, the young person overcomes a disability, such as the autistic child who would not physically relate until he became involved with the hockey team and ended up hugging his teammates. Able and disabled siblings, parents, well wishers and the general public can profit by being involved and even watching the special hockey games.
Many of the parents who are involved have children who are on the teams. There are many volunteer coaches and others who are there because they feel a special calling to help these young people have a good start in life. Each player gets to play at every practice and at every game. Hockey stars have been active in offering support, supplies and monetary gifts. Since many of the players have difficulty with social interaction or physical ability and skills, the coaches will often be one on one with the players. Volunteers are needed, as is financial support.
Although many towns and cities do not have opportunities for these people, Ottawa is fortunate to have two such teams: the Ottawa Valley Ambassadors have been established in the east and the Capital City Condors in the west. Pat Carlson, the Past President of the Ambassadors, says there is room for another team in the centre of the city.
The Ottawa Valley Ambassadors (www.ovahockey.org) was formed in 1994 and plays at the Minto Skating Rink. They have 45 players and cannot take any more because there is not enough ice time. A couple of their players are 12 years old, but most of them are more able players who are better skaters and can play against other able teams, although the goal is not the competition but the development of social and life skills and just to have fun. Many of their players are no longer youth, but still have the need to be involved. During the summer, the organizers keep the group busy with get togethers and car washes, although many of them have jobs during the day.
Jim Perkins was watching a game of the Cambridge Ice Hounds in 2008 with his father-in-law; and, as the pastor of a very community-oriented church, he and his wife, Shana, were blown away with the incredibly positive aspects of the team on the players. They listened to stories of the healing effects of the experience on the young people involved and returned to Ottawa to found the Capital City Condors (www.capitalcitycondors.org). Since that time, disabled youth six years and up have come on board in droves and the team now has about 40 players with many, many more on a waiting list, the limiting factor being lack of ice time.
At the end of the season, there is a banquet and a silent auction where the players are given awards for their efforts. Up to now, they have played only in the west end of the city. They are thrilled that the Canadian International Hockey Academy in Rockland has offered full availability of ice time for a Condors East team in 2011-12 which will allow them to register everyone on the waiting list with room for more. The team is working to find more ice time in the west end. In 2011, they were one of the winners in the Aviva Community Fund Award which provided funding for them to participate in the Special Hockey International Friendship Tournament in Boston where more than 60 teams were represented with over 900 players.
There are not enough of these initiatives to provide an opportunity for all of the disabled youth who long to be like everyone else and play sports. Some professional hockey players have given time, money and equipment to help the teams. There is a great need for volunteers, funding and ice time. This is a great opportunity for anyone with time or money available to open their hearts, and for local facilities to provide ice time to a most worthwhile cause with no strings attached. The goal that Jim and Shana Perkins have set for themselves is to help other communities establish their own teams. They would be happy to hear from any groups who would like to get started.