ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND — At ice rinks across America, parents taking their children to hockey practice are a common sight. Many think it not only helps their children stay fit, but also teaches important life lessons, like the value of teamwork. In Rockville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., a special group of young players has an inspiring story to tell.
On a recent Saturday morning in a quiet neighborhood in Rockville, the Blaisdell family got up before dawn. David Blaisdell was preparing for his son Christopher's weekly hockey practice.
Christopher is 14 years old and plays on a team called the Montgomery Cheetahs. The Cheetahs look no different than young hockey players across the U.S., but their path to the game has been very different.
All the players on the team have varying degrees of developmental challenges, including autism. The team was founded in 2006 with only 10 players and two coaches, but now has more than 80 players and a larger coaching staff. Head Coach David Lucia helped start the team.
“Montgomery Cheetahs Special Hockey Team is a therapeutic program for kids, to help them socially, behaviorally in and out of the classroom, on and off the ice. It's life skills that can be taken from the ice and transferred to daily life,” explained Lucia.
David Blaisdell, who speaks Mandarin from his overseas experience in China years ago, said much of Christopher’s success on the ice can be attributed to the coaches.
“All the coaches and volunteers are very patient with Christopher,” said Blaisdell.
The coaches are volunteers. Some, including Coach Lucia, are major donors to the team.
Weiwei Zhang, Christopher’s mother, appreciates the care the coaches take.
“Sometimes, you get the sense that the coaches treat your child better than you do,” said Zhang.
Weimin Zhou is the father of Jaojao, a player on the team. Zhou feels that playing on the Cheetahs offers the players an opportunity to grow they may not get on another team.
“Children with autism don’t mingle very well with other kids. First of all, they are not easily accepted by other kids. Secondly, they may receive special treatment. Neither is good for them to develop social skills. But on the Cheetahs, they feel they are all the same. They feel this is their own team,” said Zhou.
Chris Nagle is the mother of Donovan, another player, and also highlighted the opportunity to develop socially and physically.
“The social aspect of it has been a huge help for him because he really enjoys being with his teammates, whereas before he didn’t have the same endurance and would tired out more easily. He would be more likely to sit and read books,” said Nagle.
The social aspect also helps the parents. Parents often find themselves under immense pressure because their children have special needs. The weekly team practice gives them an opportunity to relax and mingle.
“With special needs children, there are not a lot of opportunities to be with parents with a similar situation,” explained Marie Jacob, the mother of Henry, a Cheetahs player.
Many parents serve the team as volunteers and mentors. Christopher’s father, David, is one of them.
“The more progress he makes, the more confident we parents grow, and the more grateful we are to the team. I want to do my share to be able to give back to the team,” said Blaisdell.
The American Special Needs Hockey Association says there are 50 teams like the Cheetahs nationwide with more than 1,500 participants.
Speed. Endurance. Teamwork. Competition. Hockey is a fascinating, but challenging game.
“We see how hard they try. They have so few opportunities out there. When they do get the opportunities and they shine, it just brings tears to everyone’s eyes,” said Lucia.