EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With a disabled hockey showcase set to kick off at the American Dream Mall on Feb. 17, it is difficult not to notice disabled hockey’s flourishing growth within the Atlantic Affiliate. USA Hockey National Special Hockey Representative Alex DePalma and AAHA Executive Vice President and USA Hockey Disabled Section Chair Maureen Thompson-Siegel have been part of the team helping rapidly develop this segment of the game, with a special emphasis on two fronts: availability and public visibility.
With disabled hockey teams becoming increasingly available, it has never been easier for interested parties to find a team and play. Mr. DePalma noted that in recent years, there has been growth in both the size and sheer number of disabled hockey teams. “We’ve got the Jersey DareDevils back with USA Hockey. Sled Hockey is growing again. They’re talking to us about forming a league,” Mr. DePalma recalled. “From what I understand the New York Blind program is going to have a New Jersey Chapter. Our Warrior program (for Veterans) is huge right now, it’s doing very well. Within our footprint, we’re just trying to keep building up our disabled discipline here.”
Mr. DePalma also pointed to increasing public awareness as something that is vital to growing disabled hockey. This past January, disabled hockey players from within the Atlantic Affiliate were given the opportunity to skate at the White House, which put them squarely in the national spotlight.
“It was really, really exciting,” recalled Mr. DePalma. “With events like this, giving these kids the opportunity to play is absolutely the number one priority and, after that, it becomes about getting the word out to more people. We want people to learn that this is the programming we have for children with these disabilities. The six disciplines of disabled hockey, within the hockey footprint, are well known. But once you step outside that footprint, with the general public, you never know who you will reach.”
Ms. Thompson-Siegel echoed Mr. DePalma’s sentiments, underscoring how vital it is to raise awareness for this incredible cause. “With the support of USA Hockey and our NHL partners, we are working hard to raise awareness of blind, deaf-hard of hearing, sled, special and Warrior hockey to encourage our friends and neighbors with alternate abilities to join us on the ice,” she said. “We ask you to help us spread the word to invite the members of our community to join us at the rink and on the ice. The AAHA stands ready to help players and programs begin or expand their hockey journey.”
As much growth as disabled hockey has seen in the past few years, the future is looking even more bright. On Feb. 17, there will be a disabled hockey showcase at the American Dream Mall, featuring special hockey, blind hockey and warrior hockey teams. There will also be a Warrior National Championship Apr. 11-14 at the Ice Vault Arena in Wayne, N.J. and a Sled Hockey Championship Apr. 18-21 at Ice Line in West Chester, Penn.
“There is a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion, and there should be, and nothing is more inclusive than when you can get a group of kids with special needs to all be together,” concluded Mr. DePalma. “As amazing as it is to see them on the ice, it’s just as amazing to see them in the locker room — just being together. It provides them with something that they never had at home. That’s why exposure is so important.”