The California Condors Special Needs Ice Hockey Team
Since it began six years ago, the Special Needs Ice Hockey program at Valley Ice Center (VIC) in Panorama City, California has provided an opportunity for kids and adults with developmental disabilities to learn and play hockey. Until last year, it was the ONLY program in California to give kids with autism, mental retardation, and other developmental disabilities, a chance to gear up, get on the ice and play hockey. In just the past three years, the Condors have represented California at four out-of-state Special Needs Hockey tournaments – in Utah, Colorado, Dallas, and Toronto, Canada. We are proud members of ASHA and the hockey community.
The California Condors put special needs hockey on the map in California. . In the past year, it has inspired the creation of two new special needs teams, the Pasadena Maple Leafs and the Valencia Flyers. Here is our story.
Rita Eagle’s son, Benjamin, had been playing hockey for 8 years in Toronto, before she and Benjamin moved to California, in 2001. Benjamin has developmental disabilities. In Toronto, he had been on the Grandravine Tornadoes, the first special needs ice hockey team, started by Pat Flick in 1983. Since 1983, special needs ice hockey grew and spread so that there are now more than 50 teams, with close to 1000 players in special needs ice hockey programs across United States and Canada. 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! (Special Olympics does not have ice hockey). It took 5 years for Eagle to find a rink in the Los Angeles area that had ice time available for a special needs program. The program at the Valley Ice Center in Panorama City was finally launched in October 2006. Youth and adults, boys and girls, with autism, mental retardation and other developmental disabilities were all welcome, regardless of ability to skate.
The program began with just four players. But, it grew, through the commitment and determination of the players, their parents and coaches, and the help of volunteers. and lovers of hockey who were moved by the spirit and resolve of our players. The VIC had faith in our potential and continued to keep the program open as we slowly gained players. The NHLPA donated brand new gear through the not-for-profit Hockey Equipment Lending Program (H.E.L.P.).
Parents who take the plunge are amazed at the progress their kids make and are overjoyed at what the program does for their kids’ self-esteem. Our players not only learn to skate – they learn about cooperation and teamwork; they develop social skills and they experience camaraderie; they have fun in this exciting sport, and they feel great pride as they develop their skills and make that goal! Those fathers of our players who also love and play hockey help coach as do other volunteers, both youth and adult. . Members of the West Valley Wolves (typical kids with great hockey skills) at times join the Condors on the ice to help coach the Condors and to give them some exciting competition.
The young hockey players who help us are always inspired by the Condors’ spirit. One youngster contributed a huge portion of his Bar Mitzvah money to the Condors. This allowed us to go to our first special needs tournament, in Utah, to play with teams from Utah and Colorado and really experience for the first time the thrill and pride that being part of a team can bring. Another player, with his father’s help, organized a hugely successful skate-a-thon, to raise funds so that the Condors could play in a tournament in Canada.
The Special Needs Ice Hockey program is a not-for –profit organization, run by parents. The L.A. Kings have recently given us two excellent coaches. In addition, we have volunteer coaches who are skilled at working with kids with special needs. We have an excellent coach-player ratio. All our players learn new skills and progress in our safe and supportive environment.