Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Ain't the NHL...It's Better

While browsing the web concerning Special Needs Hockey I found the following article about the North Bay North Stars.

Carol and I have met Sharon Fung, the founder of this team, and have enjoyed interacting with her at the last two Jim Gregory Friendship Tournaments.

There are so many similarities between the Stars and our Kawartha Komets.

Check out this story:

The North Bay North Stars special needs hockey team is making an impact in its league while staying true to its roots.

By Shannon Lacroix

This ain’t the NHL; it’s better.

It’s not a place where parents yell at anyone who’s not paying attention to their child (the child who’s going to make it to the NHL), not a place where rivalries escalate and tension builds. It’s a blur of blue jerseys spilling onto the ice with anticipation and excitement; and that blur explodes into every corner of the rink. Skates scratch against ice, the sound invading the freezing Pete Palangio Arena. The stands fill with the echo of bangs like a dozen shotguns going off when the pucks are dumped on the ice. Spectators ignore the overwhelming noise; they’re too focused on what they see all around them - smiles. From the players and coaches on the ice, to the parents in the bleachers cheering the kids, it’s a moving portrait of joy. And the game hasn’t even started yet...

As soon as the whistle blows, the players focus on the puck, following it everywhere it goes. Even if they miss a pass, they don’t let up and neither do their cheering fans in the stands. When the first goal crosses the red line, the parents cheer, whether the home or guest side of the scoreboard lights up. The atmosphere is electric, addictive, infectious, positive. Always.

The North Bay North Stars is a team made up of females and males; the players range in age from 10 to 70. They are split into two junior teams and two senior teams by ability, not age. The teams play against each other, the North Bay Police, local physicians, another special needs team from Ottawa, and the Almaguin Gazelles who belong to the Ontario Women's Hockey Association.

The program was brought to North Bay by Sharon Fung, whose son was the motivation. Her son, Nicholas, who’s now 13, was 10 when the idea first came up. He has Autism Spectrum Disorder, so Fung had trouble getting her son on an existing house league team. She decided to do some research of her own and found the Special Hockey International (SHI) website. She contacted teams in Durham and Orangeville for advice on how to start a team in North Bay. After consulting by phone, Fung approached the West Ferris Minor Hockey Association for support. With support for the team and with the City of North Bay finding a regular time slot for the ice, Fung contacted the National Hockey League Players’ Association, which provided 10 sets of equipment to start the team in October 2007.

The recruitment process consisted of flyers at schools with special education programs and word of mouth. Once recruitment was complete, the next step was finding a name for the team. Fung, who took on the role of manager of the team, wanted to make sure the players were involved, so she came up with a novel way of choosing the name.

‘‘We [the management] came up with 10 names, then the players voted on the one they liked best. The North Bay North Stars was the winner,’’ Fung said.

Barry Berger volunteers as head coach for the team. He had experience with some of the players before joining because he’s a special needs teacher. He found out about the team from a friend who suggested that he ‘try out’ for the position. Now in his second year of coaching the North Stars, Berger said he enjoyed coaching the Stars because what’s expected from the players isn’t the same as what was expected of the Novice AA team he coached before. He believes that coaching the Stars is easier because of the enthusiasm the players have when they jump on the ice.

‘‘My favorite part about coaching is seeing the way they get excited when they learn something new,’’ Berger said.

David Washington, the assistant manager for the team, also noted a big difference between the North Stars and other teams.

‘‘Other teams look at [hockey] as competition, but here it’s just hockey. It’s for fun,’’ Washington explained.

Special needs include physical and developmental disabilities. The team includes a player with Cerebral Palsy and some paralysis as well as scoliosis and C5-C6 spinal fusion. Other players live with anything from fetal alcohol syndrome to attention deficit disorder. Anyone is welcome to join the team as long as they can provide a doctor’s note confirming a disability and as long as they can pay the $150 fee (which can be subsidized by some government programs).

For 30-year-old Scott Mackie, a first-year right wing for the North Stars, the team is the perfect way for players like himself to develop their skills. When Mackie first joined the team he couldn’t skate backward; not only has he learned how to skate backward, his stickhandling and passing have improved dramatically.

‘‘I just love playing hockey for [the North Stars]. It’s fun and makes for a good outing. I enjoy being with the guys, and now I have extra skating moves,’’ Mackie said.

The players aren’t only learning how to improve on the ice; they’re also learning skills to help them in their everyday lives. Mark Tresnak, a father of two players on the team, said his sons have become more disciplined, so he doesn’t feel the need to ‘baby’ them anymore. They’re taking care of themselves now, which makes it easier for Tresnak to step back when it comes to their lives, although he keeps a watchful eye on them. Tresnak said he’s ‘‘fallen in love with the program’’ and enjoys going to his sons’ games. The closeness the players have developed is remarkable considering the age differences, Tresnak said.

‘‘They’re all equal because the league is based on camaraderie. They’d be glad to pass the puck instead of being the star of the team,’’ Tresnak explained.

If he could do anything to improve the team, the one thing Tresnak would do is increase the number of players and sponsors.

For Mackie, ‘‘helping out the boys’ play’’ is what he would do if he could do anything to help out the team, which heads to an exhibition game in Ottawa on March 29 and an international special needs tournament put on by SHI in Toronto on April 15 before the season ends.

Suzanne Bertsch whose husband, Mark Bertsch, is a defenceman for the North Stars, said the season has been building up to its climax next month.

‘‘Participating in the tournament is what the players have been working for all season.’’

After the final buzzer, the players will pack their duffel bags and hang up their skates to wait for the next season to begin in October.

‘‘You should talk to the players in the summer; they hate it. They’re just waiting for the season to start up again,’’ Washington added.

Note: Check out this YouTube video about the North Stars here.

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