Submitted by Anonymous on Sat, Jul 17, 2010

What Makes This Team Special?

By Mike Strzelecki
A Special Edition, 2003

Ice hockey, once the domain of burley Canadians and New England collegians, is surging in popularity as youth programs, high school teams, and adult recreation leagues are infiltrating the sport. Add to the roster the Washington Ice Dogs, the area's only ice hockey team for players with special needs.

The Ice Dogs operate under Special Hockey Washington, an organization founded and operated by Mike Hickey, a tireless hockey zealot who can't keep his hands out of the game. For over 30 years, Hickey has either played with, coached or managed a team. He's now the team's Director of Public Relations. Hickey founded Special Hockey Washington as a way to give something back to the sport.

"Many kids have developmental issues that may preclude them from participating in a typical hockey program," Hickey explains. "Special Hockey Washington gives them a chance to play, what I think, is the greatest sport on earth."

Ice Dogs players range from 8 to 37, though most tend to be teenaged. Disabilities include ADHD, Down syndrome and autism. The co-ed team participates in the Special Hockey International League, also called the Heart League, which includes eight other U.S.-based special needs teams and another 20 from Canada. The season runs from October through April. Teams occasionally play each other throughout the season, but the highlight is the Heart League tournament held each spring, the next one being in Toronto.

Practices are held weekly at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel. Rink facility president Clai Carr graciously donates rink time to the organization, effectively enabling the team to exist. Hickey calls Carr the guiding light of the program. Stuart Ronaldson, another local hockey standout, coaches the team.

When watching an Ice Dogs practice or game, don't expect much stumbling or bumbling. The talent level is impressive. Most players exhibit quick speed, deft stick work, quality teamwork and an impressive level of concentration.

Players also develop an ironclad toughness that translates to their everyday lives. Last season a key player was stricken with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a debilitating condition that causes full body paralysis, but which may reverse over time. Not even doctors could have predicted that the player would be back on the ice by the season's end.

Sam Smith one of the Ice Dogs' top players, embodies the purpose and spirit of special hockey. Sam has few physical limitations but struggles with social interactions, particularly establishing new relationships. After grappling for years with the frequent coaching and teammate changes common to youth hockey programs, Sam joined the Ice Dogs. Thanks to the stability of the program, Sam has excelled at a very high level. He has, in essence, become a star.

Sam's mother, Sara Sonet, is thrilled by her son's involvement in the program. "I'm glad Sam is doing well on the ice, but what's more important is that he made his first real friend through the Ice Dogs, a teammate named Matt Wrathall," she exclaims. "He has always had problems with social interactions, so it was great to see him finally connect with someone."

Sam, who also plays on Matt's softball team, will graduate from high school this year and is contemplating continuing on to college.

Mentoring is a Win-Win

Sam and the Ice Dogs finished last season's Heart League tournament with a record of 3-1. The success of the players, both on and off the ice, may be rooted in its mentoring arrangement. Each Ice Dogs player is coupled with a non-disabled player from a nearby high school ice hockey program who serves as a mentor. That mentor attends most games and practices and offers one-on-one teaching, coaching, and friendship necessary to absorb such a technically challenging and fast-paced game. The mentoring is vital to the team's existence.

The mentors have earned accolades from the parents of Ice Dogs participants. "I've learned that when you give boys an opportunity to do good, they rise to it," notes Sara Sonet. "These mentors are loyal, tender and funny. It's a win-win for everyone."

The relationship between mentor and player is mutually beneficial, with mentors taking home valuable life lessons as well. "from working with these kids and forming strong bonds, the mentors seem to place more value in what they have," explains Hickey. "They're inspired seeing what these kids go through and how hard they work."

Special Hockey has also garnered support from the top rung of the regions hockey community--the Washington Capitals. Stars like Kip Miller, Jeff Halpern and Steve Konowalchuck have skated with the Ice Dogs, and the front office has pitched in some fund raising support.

"We attempt to support hockey endeavors in all of its varying forms," declares Declan J. Bolger, the Capitals' Senior Vice President of Business Operations. "This is one example of how we try to reach out to the local hockey community."

Hickey has big plans for Special Hockey Washington. He wants to spread the program to nearby urban centers like Baltimore and Annapolis, effectively creating a local league. Meanwhile, the Ice Dogs will continue to serve as the region's ambassador to the world community of special needs hockey.

Date of Publication: 
Fri, Nov 23, 2007