With sandy blonde hair poking out from his oversized hockey helmet, Aiden Smith skates after the puck with the determination and zeal of a typical seven-year old boy. Proudly sporting the number 14 on his orange and navy Nova Cool Cats jersey, he seems to encompass the confidence of a player who has been playing for ages.
But Aiden is not your typical seven-year old – and the Nova Cool Cats is not your average youth hockey team.
Catering to individuals with autism, Down’s syndrome and other developmental disabilities, the Nova Cool Cats strives to give these children the same opportunities to play hockey among teammates who are on their own skill level.
The team falls into the genre of “therapeutic hockey,” meaning that it allows individuals who suffer from a disability to not only learn the sport of hockey, but moreover improve their social skills, coordination, motor function and sportsmanship. Most importantly, anyone is welcome to the team. Individuals of any gender or skill level, up to age 22, are welcome to come learn and play with the Nova Cool Cats and their experienced team of mentors.
After its formation in 2004 by hockey enthusiast Randy Brawley, the team expanded from a modest beginning to an extensive program; complete with coaches, mentors, and practice at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington -- home to the Washington Capitals. Completely volunteer-based, the team survives on donations and fundraisers to get ice time and equipment.
But if you ask the parents of these children, it’s not a penny wasted. When David Cordell brought his son, Sam, to a Cool Cats practice, his wife called him “crazy”. That was five years ago, and they are now active members of the Cool Cats family.
Although Sam could not skate at first, he eventually began actively engaging in drills and skating exercises. “Now, his favorite thing is skating backwards,” says Cordell. Not only has skating drastically enhanced Sam’s sensory skills and coordination, but it also allows the family to really connect with their son, who has autism.
“My favorite time is Family Day, where the parents go out and skate with their children. It simply amazes me when we go out there, and suddenly he can skate better than me,” says Cordell.
- But why hockey; why not football or baseball? This is the question plaguing many who are unfamiliar with the sport. According to Charlie Banta, whose son, Eddie, plays for the team, the answer lies in three variables.
First, the “field” is actually enclosed, thus creating a concrete boundary for the children to focus on.This brings us to the next point; actually controlling a hockey puck takes constant concentration, which can in turn help the players practice paying attention. Lastly, the sport is all-action. Unlike some other more stationary sports, there is never a moment in hockey where the player can fail to pay attention or succumb to their disability.
- The Nova Cool Cats are by no means the only therapeutic hockey team around – they’ve got to have someone to play, after all. Teams are rapidly expanding on a national and international basis, with the next international tournament taking place in London, England. The Cool Cats plan to attend, but are focusing on more pressing events such as the 7th annual Nova Cool Cats Golf Tournament taking place on Monday, April 25, 2011.
More information on the team and tournament can be found on the Nova Cool Cats website, novacoolcats.org.