January 26, 2010
Josh Pauls, 17, is a bi-lateral amputee from South Plainfield, NJ, whose legs were surgically removed at 10 months old. He's also a heck of a hockey player.
Pauls is a sled hockey player for the Woodbridge Spinal Rangers, and has been a member of the U.S. Junior National Sled Hockey Team (2007-2009) before earning a promotion to the U.S. Men's Paralympic Team that will compete in the Paralympics in Vancouver next month. He's also a member of EveryBODY Skates New Jersey (ESNJ) -- an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for more athletes like Josh to break through barriers and experience the incomparable thrill of competitive hockey.
"People just think of sled hockey, and there are 300 other disciplines," said Jon Schwartz, who along with brother Andrew coaches and leads the ESNJ campaign. "Because hockey has so much stimulus, it helps. Especially with autistic kids."
On Friday, Jan. 29, as part of Hockey Weekend in America, EveryBODY Skates New Jersey will begin an ambitious journey through the Garden State: Visiting all 54 New Jersey ice rinks in 54 hours. The goal is to help convince those rink owners and operators that allocating just one hour of ice time per week to disabled hockey can make an enormous difference for this fledgling program and thousands of potential players across the state.
"We're going about 1,370 miles to prove a point," said Schwartz. "That hockey is the ultimate occupational therapy for people with disabilities."
But Schwartz said that notion ignores hockey for the deaf, for example, and hockey for players with developmental disabilities.
An obvious question: What does Autistic hockey look like?
"It's a little scary for parents to put a weapon in the hands of a kid who has Autism and put them out on a slippery surface," said Schwartz. "But I think it looks beautiful. There's no icing or off-sides. We just go. The scoreboard is like a nice decoration."
He said hockey is used to stimulate as well as inspire. Goals are arranged for young players to easily score. Eight-year-olds battle adults for face-offs. "Can you imagine at 16 years old getting your first [athletic] jersey?" Schwartz asked.
There are clear benefits to disabled hockey, and Schwartz said there academic studies underway to confirm them. The obstacle facing EveryBODY Skates New Jersey and other programs like it is the same obstacle facing so many other community hockey organizations throughout the U.S.: a little thing called "available ice time."
New Jersey's 54 rinks give preference to established travel teams and high-school hockey programs. They're businesses, so that's understandable; the challenge for ESNJ is convince some of them that, if given the opportunity, disables hockey programs won't simply be charitable ventures and will pay for themselves.
"Most rinks don't realize that disabled hockey programs can pay their own way. They just need a chance to access some ice time and gain some support from the community," said Schwartz. "We have a community in New Jersey that can mobilize its forces very well. If word spreads that Rink X is holding time for disabled hockey. If you build it, they will come."
This weekend, the word spreads over 54 hours. Among the group touring the state will be U.S. Paralympians Tim Jones and Josh Pauls; U.S. Amputee team member Joe Bowser and two U.S. Deaf Olympians, along with Schwartz and others. The trip begins at the NHL Store in Manhattan at 10 a.m. on Friday, with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and ESPN's EJ Hradek scheduled to attend. (Schwartz said 20-percent of store sales that morning will be donated to ESNJ.)
ESNJ has a petition on its Web site to drum up support for the cause; there's also a complete schedule of their stops during the 54-rink trek (pdf). "Some stops might be a quick in and out," said Schwartz.
The transformative power of competitive sports is always a compelling subject. So is the battle of available sheets of ice for a growing program, which is something I experienced while covering the birth of a high-school hockey league in Northern Virginia, driving home from covering games until 12:30 a.m. on a Friday night.
Hockey is for everyone, or at least it should be; and whether it's EveryBODY Skates New Jersey or a program in your community, it's important to recognize the efforts of those who are trying to bring the Game to those it can inspire and encourage. Here's to safe and effective 54 hours in Jersey.