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Published: Sunday, 2/17/2013

UCT Winter Hockey Festival, tournament feature players with autism, brain injuries

BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ann Arbor Rockets player Jerret Breznai, center, is hugged by teammates Drew Hopper, left, and Nassim Saidane after they won their game Saturday. Ann Arbor Rockets player Jerret Breznai, center, is hugged by teammates Drew Hopper, left, and Nassim Saidane after they won their game Saturday.
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Melissa Napier watched with pride as her son Jeff, hockey stick in hand, skated around the outdoor ice rink at Ottawa Park.

She cheered when he made contact with the puck and kept her eyes on the game as she talked about her 14-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

“I’m so excited to see him out there,” said Ms. Napier, who lives in Toledo’s Westmoreland neighborhood and grew up in West Virginia playing open-air hockey. “I feel like I’m a kid out here again.”

The game Saturday was part of the 2013 UCT Winter Hockey Festival, which continues today with three games at Ottawa Park. The hockey tournament features about 10 teams of the American Special Hockey Association, launched in 2000 for male and female players of all ages and skill level with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

More than 100 players from Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana traveled to Toledo for the festival, which Toledo also hosted last year.

PHOTO GALLERY: UTC Winter Hockey Festival

Ms. Napier’s son joined a recently formed special hockey program, the Black Swamp Ice Frogs. The Bowling Green-based team didn’t have enough players to field its own team in this weekend’s tournament, so Jeff skated with the Ann Arbor Rockets.

“I think the most important thing is that they have an opportunity for the playing field to be leveled,” Ms. Napier said, adding that playing on a team makes the skaters feel good about themselves.

Competition and camaraderie were on display Saturday, as the teams and their fans gathered outside while snow flurries swirled. Honks of a vuvuzela, cheers from the crowd, and encouragement from coaches punctuated the play.

Mike Hickey, president of the American Special Hockey Association, said the program offers several levels of play, based on ability, and caters to players with autism, Down’s syndrome, brain injuries, and other special athletes. The hockey teams offer therapeutic benefits as well as an athletic outlet.

“What we are teaching is how to work together with others,” said Mr. Hickey of Crofton, Md.

Ann Arbor Rockets coach Kim Gearns, of Northville, Mich., stood near the players’ bench area and shouted tips as her team battled against the Michigan FAR Flyers. Among her ice advice: “Get your stick ready” and instructions to use two hands on the stick.

Bill Piontkowski, of Sylvan Lake, Mich., cheers during the 2nd annual UCT Winter Hockey Festival at the Ottawa Park Ice Rink in Toledo. Bill Piontkowski, of Sylvan Lake, Mich., cheers during the 2nd annual UCT Winter Hockey Festival at the Ottawa Park Ice Rink in Toledo.
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After the game, she said what she really wants to teach is responsibility, teamwork, and respect.

“They learn to be more accepting of people,” said Ms. Gearns, who learned to play hockey as an adult and plays on a women’s team along with her coaching.

The players also have taught Ms. Gearns, who said her mood lifts during the team’s weekly practices.

The volunteer-run Winter Hockey Festival is sponsored by UCT, a Columbus-based nonprofit financial services membership organization. UCT Community Outreach Manager Jen Chillinsky said next year’s event will be held in Maryland. Saturday’s activities included a ceremonial drop of the puck by state Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township).

The local Ice Frogs special hockey team welcomes potential members to Sunday practices at 5:15 p.m. at the BGSU ice arena.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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