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White Knuckle Parenting: The Magic of Special Hockey

There are not very many things that I have experienced in my life that are as powerful as watching my autistic son play special hockey.

Every once in a while as a parent, I get to experience something so powerful that it humbles me to my core. I was lucky enough to have one of these experiences last weekend courtesy of the American Special Hockey Association's (ASHA) special hockey tournament.

Special hockey is hockey for kids and adults with developmental disabilities. My autistic 8-year-old, Jack, has skated for two seasons with the Montgomery Cheetahs, a local special hockey team that practices weekly at Cabin John ice rink. Last weekend, he and nearly 30 other players from the Cheetahs traveled to Jamestown, New York, to play in the ASHA special hockey tournament. It was magical.

I rewrote the first paragraph to this column a million times, trying to find a lead in the most powerful moment of the weekend. Try as I might, I couldn't think of what that moment would be. What could possibly communicate the magic of what happened for these kids and their parents over the weekend?

I considered opening with the goal that Jack scored in the last seconds of his last tournament game. It was the first goal he's ever scored in a game, and watching his coaches and all of the players on the ice help him get that goal was profoundly moving. Even better? Later in the locker room, I told him, "I am so proud of you," to which he responded, "I am proud of myself."

I thought about leading with a vignette of these players. Many of these kids struggle socially and rarely interact with their peers in school, but they spent this tournament laughing, talking, joking, and playing together in the swimming pool, on the bus, and everywhere else they came together.

Maybe I should have started with one mom saying, "Your baby is my baby here," as we all took care of each others' children, made sure they were safe, played with them, cheered them on the ice, and truly loved them.

I could definitely have led with the Cheetahs' head coach and the smile on his face as he skated eight games over two days with his players. Later, he told the team parents, "I wish you could be out there with me on the ice to see the kids' smiles as they play."

Or maybe I should have written about how players who started with the Cheetahs seven years ago and could barely skate are now competitive players who can not only hold their own and skate exciting and skilled hockey, but who can see when it is more important for the other team to get puck time and goals and can hold back their own game to build up their rivals.

I should definitely have mentioned the camaraderie between the parents, the tears on the bench, the joy at seeing our children stand on the ice during the opening ceremony as the national anthem played and hundreds of people cheered for them. For kids who struggle with motor skills or maybe don't even speak much and who probably spend much of their school life being asked to do things that are so hard for them? Well, every one of those kids deserves a ceremony where they get a standing ovation. I should definitely have started with that.

If not that, I should have talked about how the thing about special hockey is that it's about more than the score. It is about cheering everyone, no matter who scores the goal. Really, it's about more than goals. It is about getting on the ice and finding a sport to love. It is about making sure all the players feel good about themselves. It is about community and teamwork and social skills and hard work and joy.

It's possible that I should have started with a personal note about my Jack and his progress. Jack, who wasn't able to skate a full game in any of his matches and who barely spoke to anyone at all at last year's tournament, skated four full games this year, and managed to make some friends to boot.

I could have begun with a paragraph about how adapted sports are a big deal to kids with disabilities. How every Saturday during the September to May hockey season, these athletes get out of bed early for their 6:45 or 7:45 a.m. practice time. What's more, dozens of typical teenagers get out of bed at the same time to mentor the players one-on-one to help them learn to skate, hit the puck, and be part of a team.

Maybe I should have started with the example that some of the older athletes set for the younger ones. I watched special needs teenagers, who probably haven't had an easy go at it themselves, be mentors themselves to the younger kids. I should definitely have started with how I felt looking at those young men and knowing how proud I would be if my son grew up to be like them.

I think the most powerful thing about this weekend was that there were so many powerful moments that it is impossible to choose one that tops them all. Adapted sports, be it special hockey, Special Olympics, Challenger baseball, or any number of other programs, make such a difference for their players, their coaches, their parents, and typical kids who work with the athletes. I have heard dozens of stories that demonstrate this to me—I spoke to one Cheetahs father this weekend whose son will be attending college next year; "I don't know that he could have done it without this team," he said—and I have seen it in my own child time and again.

I didn't know how to start this column, but I do know how to end it. I will end by telling you of the indescribable feeling I get when I watch these teams play, be it my child or someone else's. I spent a lot of time last weekend trying to understand that heavily physical feeling in my chest when I was with this team and their coaches and parents.

It truly is indescribable and it is absolutely a mix of many things, but mostly it is joy. It is joy and it is magic, because there really is magic in special hockey. I know because I watched it a hundred times this weekend.

If you would like to be involved with the Cheetahs, please visit their website for more information. The Cheetahs are an all-volunteer organization of special needs families whose main fundraiser is a skate-a-thon on May 12, 2012. Please consider attending or donating to their cause. More information is on the Cheetahs' skate-a-thon fundraising site. The Cheetahs will use 100% of your donation to fund ice expenses for the team.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Stacy Biddinger March 27, 2012 at 04:47 PM
I have to stop reading your stories about the trip because I end up crying every time! This time at my desk, and visibly enough that someone asked me what's wrong. "Nothing's wrong, I just love special hockey" (which then required some additional explaining...)
Jean Winegardner March 27, 2012 at 05:03 PM
You're spreading the magic. I love you for loving special hockey—and us. Thank you.
Janis March 28, 2012 at 01:33 AM
Jean, Thank you for a wonderful summary of this very special event!
Jean Winegardner March 28, 2012 at 01:49 AM
Thanks, Janis! I so wish you could have been there!
Yvonne March 30, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Jean- Thanks for sharing. I wasn't able to attend, but your summary gave me the highlights! Yvonne

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