Learning to ice skate and play hockey can be a difficult process for anybody, but imagine going through that process with a developmental disability. That is exactly what the athletes from the Bridges to Ability/Valencia Flyers are trying to accomplish. Helping those who have been affected by disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism, the Bridges to Ability non-profit foundation recently added ice hockey to its list of activities.
“This is something the community has been longing for for some time now, and they haven’t even realized it,” said head coach Mike Doggett.
Over the past 10 years, the Bridges to Ability Foundation has worked with people of all ages, and has given those with special needs the chance to compete in various sports such as basketball, flag football, and floor hockey. The current ice hockey team’s sprouted from a Special Olympics floor hockey team. For three years, the squad went undefeated and recently sought a different challenge. Beckie Warloe, founder and assistant coach of the ice hockey team, is given much of the credit for the expansion of the program.
“I saw an article on the (special needs ice hockey team) California Condors and I wanted to find out more information about them,” Warloe said. “We went to watch one of their practices in February and I said to myself, ‘If these athletes can do it, why can’t we?’”
From there, further development of the team continued as Bridges to Ability received substantial donations by Valencia Ice Station owner Roger Perez. Perez has given the team money for equipment as well as ice time for practice. “There is no way that we could have done this without that guy.” said team president Dave Chase. “We appreciate everything he has given us because the cost of this sport is so huge.”
Organized skating practices began at the end of March, and just a few of the 14 members currently on the team had any previous skating experience, Chase said. Players range in age from 17 to 40, and must demonstrate their ability to skate before being allowed to practice. To help the learning process, Chase has modified a walker that allows the athletes to skate in control without the risk of falling. Once players are confident without the walker, they skate around the edge of the rink, only using the wall for support when necessary.
After both stages are complete, the players are allowed to practice with the team.
“All the coaches have been there since day one,” said Lisa Sinisi, whose son Michael made his full-pad practice debut Saturday. “Just last week he was out there on the ice with the glider working on his balance.” Like Michael, the team as a whole has progressed and improved at a much higher rate than anticipated.
“None of us had any idea how quickly these athletes would take hold and demonstrate a real deep desire to learn,” Doggett said. “They got that hockey mentality and continue to push themselves.” The Flyers have joined the Condors as well as the Pasadena Maple Leafs in the Western Conference of the American Special Hockey Association.
The ASHA has over 50 programs in more than 30 cities across the United States and is continually looking to expand. The Bridges/Flyers will continue to practice at the Valencia Ice Station before scrimmaging the other Southern California teams in September.
“This program is going to explode,” Doggett said. “Once the word gets out, we’ll get many more players of all ages and ability levels.”