Since it began five years ago, the Special Needs Ice Hockey program in Panorama City, California, has provided an opportunity for kids and adults with developmental disabilities to learn and play hockey. Until just six months ago, it was the only program in California to give kids with autism, intellectual disabilities and other developmental disabilities a chance to gear up, get on the ice and play hockey. They are still the only special needs ice hockey team in the state—the California Condors. In just the past two years, the Condors have represented California at three out-of-state Special Needs Ice Hockey tournaments in Utah, Colorado, and Toronto, Canada.
My son Benjamin had been playing hockey in Toronto on a special needs ice hockey team for eight years before we moved to California in 2001. Naturally, he wanted to continue playing. But in California in 2001 there was no place for Benjamin or any other child or adult in California with developmental disabilities to play hockey. (The Special Olympics does not include ice hockey.) It took five years to find an ice rink that could give us ice time. The program at the LA Kings’ Valley Ice Center in Panorama City was finally launched in October 2006.
Why ice hockey for kids and young adults with special needs? Aside from the excitement and the fun, ice hockey builds motor and sensorimotor skills, focus and coordination. It teaches teamwork and cooperation and inspires communication and camaraderie. Kids and adults who have never worn a pair of skates are thrilled to discover that they can learn to skate—and they do learn very quickly, thanks to excellent coaching and a high coach to player ratio. The kids wear protective gear and padding that gives them confidence and combats fear of falling, so the desire to get the puck into the net seems to take over. While the eyes and hands are focused on that puck, the feet just somehow follow along to help get that goal. The players feel pride as they develop their skills and get the puck into the net. They wait all week for the chance to play on Sunday. Parents are amazed at the progress their kids make and overjoyed at what the program does for their kids’ self-esteem.
The Special Needs Ice Hockey program is a not-for-profit organization run by parents. It is safe: there is no body checking or high sticking and no fighting, only the fun and skill-building that comes with learning to skate and play hockey. We are able to provide all hockey gear and skates free of charge while the player is in the program. The LA Kings recently gave us two excellent coaches. In addition, we have volunteer coaches who are skilled at working with children with special needs. Fathers of our players who also play and love hockey help coach, as do other volunteers, both youth and adult. Typically developing children with great hockey skills at times join the Condors on the ice to help coach the team and to give them some exciting competition.
Youth and adults, boys and girls with autism, intellectual disabilities and other developmental disabilities are all welcome, regardless of ability to skate. To learn more about the Special Needs Ice Hockey program at Valley Ice Center, please visit www.calspecialhockey.com, or come watch, any Sunday, from 4:50 to 5:50 PM. The new season begins in January.