Submitted by Anonymous on Sat, Jul 17, 2010

Coach Brian O’Neil helps James Chimblo as players for the Southern Connecticut Storm special hockey team take to the ice for practice last month at the Wonderland of Ice rink in Bridgeport.
(Kathleen O’Rourke/Staff photo)

By Jeff Morganteen
Special Correspondent

December 10, 2007

BRIDGEPORT - Until three months ago, R.J. Gazerro played ice hockey only with a video game controller.

The 11-year-old from Westport has Asperger's syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, and lacks the social skills to compete with typical players. But he is physically able to play.

Such is the case for members of the Southern Connecticut Storm special hockey team. R.J. and the 21 other players have some degree of developmental disability, including autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

After a recent practice at the Wonderland of Ice rink, R.J., wearing a new team jacket with his name and number, mused about his new skating skills.

"I think I broke my personal record for speed," R.J. said. "I was flying out there."

His mother, Debbie Gazerro, said the experience is gratifying for her, too.

"It's great to see him fall and get right back up," she said. "It's really hard to put into words."

Practice helps the fledgling players learn the fundamentals of skating and shooting, and the team atmosphere helps them build life skills.

"It's not as much about learning how to skate and learning the game of hockey as it is about trying to become a part of society," said head coach Brian O'Neil. "These kids need to have trust in people other than their parents."

Jackson Hyatte, an autistic player from Wilton and one the team's fastest skaters, spends practice in constant motion. Getting him to focus on playing the game is another story, said mentor Madeline Conburn, a 16-year-old hockey player from Darien.

"In the beginning, Jackson wouldn't even keep his gloves on," she said. "Now, he's one of the better skaters."

Some of the Storm's newcomers, in particular autistic players, suffer sensory overload from being at the rink, with its bright lights and loud orders from coaches.

"Physically, Jackson is fine, but he just sees the world differently," O'Neil said. "You have to look at him in the eye. You have to talk to him in simple words and be very direct with him."

The team, part of the American Special Hockey Association, operates under the disabled section of USA Hockey, the national governing body.

New Canaan resident Debbie McQuilkin formed the team after she organized an equipment drive for the special hockey association in spring 2005 at the New Canaan Winter Club. Mike Hickey, president of the American Special Hockey Association, approached her after the drive and suggested she begin a special hockey program in Fairfield County.

"It took off from there, and the children just keep on coming," McQuilkin said.

During practice Dec. 2, the Storm became a real team. New jerseys had arrived - blue and white sweaters with a cartoon cloud and Storm in orange letters. They took a team photo, with O'Neil getting everyone to stay put.

"None of these kids have ever had a jersey," he said.

Patrick Devitt, a 7-year-old from New Canaan with Down syndrome, joined the team seven weeks ago. At first, he used a walker on the ice, but soon he was chasing pucks.

"One more and I'm done," he told his father, Tom Devitt.

The team buys ice time and provides equipment and scholarships with a grant from American Special Hockey Association as well as fundraisers, private donations and sponsorships. Since finding a home at the Wonderland of Ice in September, the Storm's roster has ballooned from a few skaters to a full bench of 22 players of all ages.

"The demand comes about because people find that it is therapeutic," Hickey said. "These parents go through any means to find programs that work, and our programs work."

With all-volunteer staffs, the Storm and the American Special Hockey Association are grassroots operations. Hickey, the founder, puts in about 35 hours a week to run the association in addition to his day job and works out of his home in Crofton, Md.

A member of the USA Hockey disabled program approached him with the idea of forming a national organization two years ago, he said. The association now has 33 teams nationwide from Massachusetts to Oregon.

After forming a board of directors and finding interested parents and children that summer, McQuilkin searched for ice time in Fairfield County.

"It's kind of a man's world," she said. "As a hockey mom, I don't have the same pull as someone who plays hockey every Saturday night."

It took McQuilkin until summer to secure enough practice time for the team, which until September had only four sessions. While other teams practice early mornings or late at night, McQuilkin needed "prime-time weekend" ice because of her players' special needs.

The team now practices every Sunday, when coaches and volunteer mentors teach everything from putting on equipment to skating backward. Mentors work one-on-one with novice players while more advanced skaters square off in a half-ice scrimmage.

"I just love watching each step, each change they make," McQuilkin said. "Every week we see something new."

This week, however, the Storm is mourning 14-year-old C.J. Sweeny of Stamford, a team member who had leukemia and Down syndrome. C.J. joined the team in the summer but left to undergo cancer treatment. He died Dec. 2.

"I look at him, and I see the face of special hockey," McQuilkin said.

For now, the team is learning the fundamentals. O'Neil said he hopes to schedule games soon against other special hockey teams, such as the Connecticut Chasers in Simsbury, the New Jersey Daredevils from Orange, N.J., and the New York Raptors in Larchmont, N.Y.

"A lot of the better skaters, the more physical kids, can't wait to play games," O'Neil said.

A 43-year-old New Canaan resident, O'Neil also coached high school teams. His brother, who is mentally impaired, is a swimmer, sailor and bowler in the Special Olympics. The success of the Storm depends on how long its players stick with it, O'Neil said.

"The goals that you set for a 7-year-old hockey kid, you're going to attain in a month," he said. "The goals that we're going to set for this team, it'll take a year."

Copyright (c) 2007, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

Date of Publication: 
Mon, Dec 10, 2007