By Brian Kalisher -
FRASER - Some kids grow up with circumstances a bit different than the average hockey player, yet they love the game all the same. They seek the same chances to play and enjoy the great frozen pastime.
Now, because of some caring, hockey-loving souls, the opportunity is theirs for the taking.
The Macomb-Oakland Regional Center (MORC) Stars special-needs hockey program, founded and coached by former professional hockey player Peter Ciavaglia, gives disadvantaged players of all ages a chance to play hockey. On Dec. 20, they had the chance to show off their skills against the ’99 Michigan Travelers, who hosted the Stars during their own scheduled ice time at Great Lakes Sports City Arena in Fraser.
Both teams showed that playing hockey isn’t always about winning and losing.
“I told our team to go out there and work hard and play hard, it was a great game,” Travelers’ coach Tom Emery said. “I thought it was an outstanding opportunity for our kids to see some people maybe not quite as fortunate to be able to play hockey all the time, as we are able to, so it was great to be able to give back a little bit and see the smiles on their faces.”
The MORC program was started by Ciavaglia in 2007 with seven players interested in the game. Since then, it has expanded to over 90 enthusiastic participants. The youngest in the current group is 8 years old; the oldest is 40.
“As we grow we get youth groups, mainstream teams, that want to scrimmage us and so on,” said team manager Andy Hannah. “So that’s how this came about. We played the Michigan Travelers last year and they did a really good job of playing down without making it look obvious that they weren’t trying as hard.”
The successful growth of Ciavaglia’s program was a result of other hockey clubs wanting to be involved with the cause, along with word of mouth around local rinks.
“When I played with the [Detroit] Vipers, the organization was very charitably inclined,” Ciavaglia said. “They would group us and we would go talk to schools and different organizations to try and give back. It’s something when I retired, I wanted to continue that.
“I eventually hooked up with some different people and did some homework and started a charity. There’s another team in the area called the Michigan FAR Flyers, we hooked up with them, saw their operation and figured there was a need for maybe more hockey. We started small in 2007 with a few of us, and it has kind of grown from a volunteer standpoint, and from a player standpoint obviously.”
The environment at the rink during the Stars-Travelers contest was loose and exciting, with a happy group of kids, coaches and parents doing something they loved. At one point during warm-ups, some of the Travelers’ players noticed Michigan Hockey was there to take in the action. One player decided to fire a puck towards the glass directly in front of our faces. The prank seemed to be a fitting start for an evening full of enjoyment across the board.
Carol Schwanger, Michigan Amateur Hockey Association’s disabled sports director, is responsible for overseeing special hockey for players with developmental disabilities. She said the MORC program is integral to giving disabled children the opportunity to lace up the skates.
“Just like able-bodied or neurotypical hockey can be cost prohibitive at times, it’s even more so for families that also have medical issues and struggle to deal with financial issues,” Schwanger said. “So this MORC program is one of the best because the kids skate for free and MAHA supports their programs.”
Within the unique game setting was a shared applause for both teams. As the Stars carried the puck down the ice – towards the Travelers’ goal in an attempt to score, remember – the Travelers’ players and coaches cheered from the bench, saying things like “What a move!” and “Bury it!” It was remarkable to see a young team embrace the fact that in some games, winning is the least of their concern.
Other than the extra encouragement between teams and the fact that the Stars skated with six players, it was impossible to tell that one team featured a special group of kids. The Stars lined up correctly, took face-offs fiercely, and drove to the net with a purpose.
The MORC Stars ended up edging out the Travelers 9-7, with a little friendly help on the ice. However, the score of the contest turned out to be the least important aspect of the night.
“We teach them hockey for fun, we’re very noncompetitive,” Hannah said. “We don’t have to win but we like the games to be close. What they actually learn is the camaraderie, the teamwork, the sharing aspect, and they learn that in reality they can do something that a mainstream player can do, a mainstream kid can do.
“They grow up their entire life [hearing] ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ They’re banned, or you know, like outcasts in normal groups. Here they feel part of a group, part of something bigger than themselves.”
Because the Stars have so many players involved in the program – including groups of players first learning to skate – MORC is able to put together specific teams before games that best suit the players’ varying abilities and skill levels. For the Travelers match-up, 20 of the Stars’ players were selected to take part.
“We pick who we’re playing against, who wants to play us, and then these are some of our better players,” Hannah said. “In special hockey they don’t do it by age, they do it by skill levels. So it would be like A division, B division, C division – this would be like an A division team.”
Ciavaglia knows what hockey can do for a child and wants his kids to be able to grow through hockey in a competitive environment.
“I think when you get in situations like this, the kids are very competitive and they want to play, and we do have scrimmages in our practices every week,” Ciavaglia said. “But, you know, as you would imagine, it gets stale – [the kids ask] ‘When are we going to have a real game?’ – so when you get an opportunity to scrimmage other kids it’s a good experience. I think it builds kind of that team chemistry, the kids get together and are excited to play on the same side, not against each other.
“I think it’s just being in that competitive environment, working together, and I think it’s coaches and the players growing together and basically having a lot of fun out there.”
Travelers’ coach David Vicari said it’s important for his kids to experience a game with the Stars because the goal of youth hockey is to mold the young athletes into better people, both on and off the ice.
“We started this last year when our boys were 9 and 10,” Vicari said. “Now they’re 11 and 12, and all of us as coaches, in addition to trying to make them better hockey player, have goals of making them better young men. And one of the things that we wanted them to do was to, you know, understand again how fortunate they are and that not everybody has the same physical abilities and capabilities all the time, and we wanted to show that.
“We’ve done this with the MORC Stars last year and it went well and we’re hoping to do this as an annual tradition now, and the boys love it, the boys love it.”
The Michigan Travelers’ players were so into the idea, they don’t want to wait until next season.
“The kids actually wanted to do it again this season, not on a yearly basis, they wanted to do it again this season,” Travelers’ coach Tim Miller said. “So it just tells you how much it meant to them, and to see the smiles on the faces on that other team was just, I mean, it was just priceless.”
Photo gallery of the game is coming soon…